SaVILE and the BBC – class is ‘in plain sight’


BH pic

The BBC’s HQ, Broadcasting House. A ‘ship’ that’s now holed below the waterline?


How did he get away with it? Why did no-one stop him? Why was everyone fooled by him?The report by Dame Janet Smith into the late Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, directly or indirectly linked to his BBC work, far from answering questions and satisfying his victims that some sort of justice had been done, seems to have caused only further anger, frustration, and accusations that it was a “whitewash”. One of the (surely?) unintended consequences of the report is of the veteran DJ, Tony Blackburn, being ‘sacked’ after he denied that a meeting had taken place 45 years ago after he was apparently named (amongst others) in a diary of a  15-year-old girl who committed suicide.

Tony Blackburn gave a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger interview to BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, broadcast today, in which he gave a (to me) highly plausible possible explanation as to how a memo of this supposed meeting could have been written. 

Full disclosure before I go any further: whilst I don’t claim to be ‘great showbiz mates’ with Tony Blackburn, I’ve met and chatted to him on several occasions, and I like him very much. He is an extraordinarily kind, positive and generous man, with a genuine love of music and an absolute passion for radio. I also have a pension from the BBC – so, on those grounds, at least, I’d rather it didn’t collapse for while yet!

As I’ve blogged before, I met SaVILE only once, though it was over several hours, when I was Programme Controller of a commercial radio station, when he came to do a promotional visit after I agreed to take his part-syndicated weekly show in the 1990s. I have a team studio photo, with SaVILE in the centre – with, naturally, one of the female presenters on his knee. In complete contrast to Tony, I took an instant dislike to SaVILE; finding him cold, cynical, arrogant, and totally untrustworthy.

Many explanations have been given for how apparently otherwise decent and certainly educated and cultured people, either turned a blind eye to Savile’s grotesque levels of sexual abuse, often on BBC premises,  or acknowledged that something bad was probably going on but excused it, because it was “just Jimmy”.

Looking through Dame Janet Smith’s 753-page report this week-end (I did so you don’t have to!), there are a couple of factors I’d like to discuss that are either not mentioned at all, or are mentioned only obliquely.

My starting point for looking at any situation in England (I specify that nation in the United Kingdom) is social class. It’s nearly always in there. Amongst the many things that Dame Janet seems not to have grasped is that SaVILE’s social background amongst the BBC’s radio and TV presenters at that time was his genuinely working-class roots. Most of the original Radio 1 team (Dame Janet  correctly points out that SaVILE joined the network about a year after its launch) were privately educated. Tony Blackburn is the son of a GP and attended the private Millfield School.   Jimmy Young was quite ‘common‘, being the son of a baker and Grammar-School educated. I think only Kenny Everett, the Liverpudlian son of a tugboat captain, could rival SaVILE’s background. John Peel admitted that he had only been given the job of playing psychedelic and ‘dangerous’ music because he was an ‘old Salopian’ and, therefore, could probably be trusted with the nation’s airwaves. And just as the ‘talent’ was overwhelmingly upper-middle-class, the BBC executives and producers were of ‘officer class’; mostly university educated and of a civil service mentality, who existed in a world of secure employment, graded salary scales, a hierarchy, of ‘referring up’, of BBC social clubs and gold-plated pensions and the countless unspoken but shared assumptions, attitudes, and ‘ways of doing things’. If ‘it’ had to be spoken about, it was a quiet word between chaps, and maybe a discrete note placed on the Personnel File.

SaVILE had left school at 14, had no qualifications, but was very bright and realised if he was going to make anything of himself it would be on his own terms, and forge an indelible impression through outlandish dress, behaviour, mannerisms, and overall persona.

The BBC just couldn’t get a handle on him. Since Reith’s time, the Corporation has treated the entertainment world with the sort of wariness that you might treat an excitable but temperamental dog. And when they had to engage with the showbiz world, they liked to deal with agents and managers, often – like The Beatles’ Brian Epstein – from an impeccable upper middle-class background, or were from the ‘showbiz royalty’ who owned and ran the theatres, cinema chains and ‘talent’.

In his autobiography and in a number of interviews, Tony Blackburn recalls  the legendary agent Harold Davidson, who represented some huge names,  sidling up to him at a party and promising that, if Blackburn signed up, within the year he would be the biggest name in British radio. He was as good as his word. But SaVILE had no agent – unless you count the ‘hard men’ from the northern dance-halls who often accompanied him.

So: he was from the north, he was working-class, he was clearly eccentric and unconventional, and was from the world of tough dance-halls, of chancers, of ‘bouncers’ who settled disputes with a baseball bat; of cash-in-the-hand-and-no-questions. Simply, I think they were embarrassed to tackle him, because to do so could be seen as snobbery, patronising, and implying that his class and attitudes were inferior. They were just too damned polite! And I think SaVILE sussed that and used it relentlessly. Worse, the BBC types – and this is where I think the Dame Janet Smith’s report is good – thought that, well, working-class girls probably are like that; promiscuous and often willingly having sex before the age of consent.

Another aspect is that, until 1967 (the year that Radio 1 began), male homosexual acts, even in private and involving those aged over 21, were illegal in the UK (and only de-criminalised in England and Wales – Scotland and Northern Ireland had to wait for a while after that). The BBC had no doubt had many gays in its employ, so there was a long-standing culture of secrecy and ‘knowing winks’ and whispers over sexual matters of a certain kind.   And, whilst the law might have changed, it took a long time for general attitudes on homosexuality to change and before people would feel comfortable and confident in ‘coming out’. I’m convinced that this all added to the mix of –  shall we say – unconventional sex being something that was known about and tolerated, and people not wanting to ‘get involved’ with such matters.

In the same week that the report into SaVILE was published, a number of men were jailed for lengthy terms after being convicted of horrendous and widespread sexual crimes over many years in the Yorkshire town of Rotherham, apparently (once again, following a depressing pattern with other scandals) acting with impunity, with the police and social services ignoring, disbelieving, or even conniving with the criminals. In many – but by no means all – of the recent scandals in the UK, the authorities are largely of a different class, and, in this case, of  a different ethnicity. Once again, I think they were embarrassed and very wary of tackling these men, because they were of a different culture and those investigating or challenging such behaviour and incidents could be accused of racism, or at the very least of cultural insensitivity.

But disturbingly, good people often turn a blind eye and refuse to believe the victims because those involved in the abuse are from the same class, background and culture. The excellent movie Spotlight is the story of how a team of investigators on The Boston Globe exposed the wiedepsread paedophilia by Roman Catholic priests in the city – and, as it turned out, in many other places in the US and worldwide. In several scenes in the film, the journalists and the editor are subject to appeals not to expose such gross abuse and criminality out of loyalty to friendships and kinship.

Two other points – touched on by the Dame Janet Smith report but perhaps not given sufficient prominence and which links with the Catholic priests’ abuse:

First, the fact that in the periods when the SaVILE abuse peaked – the 1960s and ’70s – children were abused, legally every day, in schools and at home. Boys and girls were (quite legally) beaten as a matter of course, and there is no doubt that many teachers who got a sexual thrill from, especially, beating boys on their bottoms, stalked the land, unchallenged and acting with impunity. I’ve previously blogged about one particular (I should emphasise long since dead!) master at my own secondary school.


But what I remember, aside from receiving and witnessing many beatings, including in the changing rooms, was this teacher openly masturbating as he watched us troop into the communal showers, in which, almost unbelievably to today’s schoolkids, the teachers joined  us!  On one occasion he had just beaten about half a dozen of us and was clearly relishing seeing his ‘handiwork’ as we walked past him, naked. But this teacher was regarded as ‘eccentric’ and, if you mentioned what had happened, you were just advised you to ‘try and steer clear of him’ and ‘try not to draw attention to yourself’. I think I’ve read all the autobiographies of the BBC’s leading radio personalities and they all have tales about such incidents – often, such  as Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker and Chris Evans – leaving them with a searing feeling of outrage and injustice.  I am not trying to equate these sorts of incidents with those discussed in Dame Janet’s report, but these are exactly the sorts of phrases that were used to any children and others who complained about SaVILE!

In private boarding schools, it wasn’t just the teachers one had to fear – decades after the event, John Peel broke down in front of his wife when he revealed that he had been raped by an older boy at his school. As with the Catholic priests and countless other abusers, the victim is made to feel it is their fault, and carry shame and guilt with them into their adult life; sometimes with tragic consequences.  Children of ALL classes and in all educational establishments just had no power and no control over their lives and, of course, young women were regarded as ‘fair game’ and expected to put up with unwanted advances in a good-humoured way.

Final main point  – and, again, this is certainly alluded to in the report but not, I think, given enough emphasis – and that is the enormous power and celebrity status of BBC TV and radio personalities, especially when there were just three TV channels, and the BBC held an official monopoly of radio until 1973 (and only a patchy network of commercial stations developing for about a decade and half after that); in the first few years  when SaVILE joined Radio 1, the network was the only daytime outlet for popular music and personality- type DJs. The audience figures were ENORMOUS! Out of those millions who listened every day to ‘the nation’s favourite’, there were bound to be some who entertained lurid fantasies about the DJs; as tragically, it seems, one did over Tony Blackburn (she also claimed to have been seduced by Frank Sinatra, and even Rock Hudson – who was gay!). So, you can imagine  that, when complaints were made, from perhaps ‘over-excitable girls’, it would be very easy to disbelieve them. Unfortunately, when it came to SaVILE, it seems they were usually true.


Taking all the acknowledged differences in culture, attitudes, etc. of 2016 compared with the dark old days in which SaVILE flourished, how do we guard against future abusers, be they in broadcast studios, on hospital wards, or in deprived towns of many cultures? I’ve no experience and, therefore, have nothing useful to add to the discussion about Rotherham or Rochdale. And we now have what amounts to a witch-hunt of celebrities from that period, with smears and innuendo, with no corroboration, let alone evidence that would meet the requirements of the criminal law, threatening to ruin the reputations of a wide range of people from pop stars to ex-service chiefs.

Every year, many teachers and others who have contact with young people, have their careers and reputations ruined by unfounded and often malicious accusations. We have to be careful. And you can produce as many ‘strategies’ and develop as many procedures as you like, but if you don’t have a culture where EVERYONE sees it as their MORAL (not just legal) responsibility to keep an eye and ear open for signs of ‘questionable’ behaviour, and where staff feel confident they can report such incidents, then abuse can still flourish. But crucially, we then must also give those against whom accusations have been made to know what is being alleged about them and to answer these claims.

But what, specifically, about the BBC? In a torrid period of scandal of many types at the Corporation, and with rocks being proverbially thrown at them from many different quarters, and its funding sliced and diced, is the world’s leading public service broadcaster now holed below the  waterline? I fear it might be. One commentator said some time ago that the BBC would not, in the end, be finished by right-wing ideologues, who hate and fear its culture, mission, ethos and dominance in our broadcasting and wider culture: it would be the cackling, peroxided pervert of SaVILE that would ‘do’ for them. Perhaps he is, like the UK’s nuclear deterrent Trident, able to wreak annihilation from beyond the grave.

I’ll finish with advice that I’m sure the BBC’s Director-General won’t read and won’t heed even if he did see it: give Tony Blackburn his ‘job’ back! HE is a national treasure, and much loved – and you are not.  Do you really want to your obituary and your legacy to be ‘the man who sacked Tony Blackburn’?










About richardrudin

I'm a Senior Lecturer in journalism by 'trade'. My background is mainly in broadcasting, although I initially trained (and qualified!) as a newspaper journalist. I'm interested in what shapes people's views/attitudes, nature/wildlife, politics, reading, music (fairly varied but particular fondness from pop/rock/soul genres circa 1964-84 ish) and broadcasting history, as well as new technologies.
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