Following up on yesterday’s post about the importance of understanding why the media failed to reveal the full story of allegations about Jimmy Savile during his life, our Ian Kirby gives his view based on his experience working in the newspaper industry:
The News of the World was particularly hot on paedophiles. We named and shamed them. We campaigned for laws against them. At any one time we would be running at least one major undercover investigation against them.
If they were a celebrity, massive resources would be devoted to potential stories. I was the political editor of the paper who did no door-knocking, but was called by the Editor on my honeymoon and told to go and find Gary Glitter in Havana.
Five years later, in 2006, the News of the World moved three senior reporters and two photographers to Vietnam for six months to expose Glitter – an investigation which uncovered enough evidence for him to be jailed for three years, after avoiding death by firing squad.
If no stone was left unturned on these stories how did a famous television presenter manage to abuse at least 60 under-age girls over 40 years (according to the number of cases now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police)?
There are four reasons:
1) You cannot reprint gossip. You have to prove it yourself. In a case such as Saville’s, the world of a victim, no matter how credible, is not enough without further proof.
2) No victim ever came forward to a newspaper or television programme while he was alive. That meant there was no one to work with, and no secondary evidence. This would include an arrest by police, an undercover video tape of Savile trying to procure an under-age victim or boasting. There was no evidence from his computers, as there was in the Gary Glitter case.
3) Savile’s lawyers were very good. Every time a reporter tried to investigate him, his legal team were very prompt in threatening aggressive legal action. In the 1990s, The Sun paid Elton John over £1.3m after libelling him in a story with no credible evidence, so journalists were cautious.
4) His charities always supported him. Savile was a Knight of the Realm. When stories about his odd lifestyle surfaced periodically, charities warned newspapers that any efforts to undermine their marathon running star would damage their own fundraising.
What changed two weeks ago? Three things: you can’t libel the dead, ITV produced an excellent investigation and newspapers love giving the BBC a kicking. Newsnight Editor Peter Rippon’s claim that his programme turned down the story because they did not do stories about celebrities, particularly dead ones, gave them more than enough of an excuse to wade in. It is hard to see how the child protection issues were not justification in themselves. He is accused of abusing under-age girls in his dressing room and in hospitals. Savile was even allowed to park his campervan in the grounds of a girls’ boarding school.
Sadly, the barriers outlined above barriers protected Savile for decades. Some journalists claim a tough new privacy law will protect other celebrity sex offenders. Personally, I think that’s wrong. The public interest in exposing a serious criminal activity would always justify a newspaper’s actions. In fact, it is more important than ever that editors invest in the expensive and time consuming investigations that are required to expose these people. It is journalists, as well, as celebrities, who need to stop hiding behind the Leveson Inquiry.