Friday, 2 November 2012

s'a vile old world out there!

As someone who’s been associated with the BBC for a fair old time now, I find I’m being asked a variety of questions about the ghastly Jimmy Savile affair.
For what it’s worth, here’s my personal take.  I neither have, nor claim, any specialist knowledge of the matter; this is personal opinion only.

Did people know about Savile?   There were certainly rumours.  I remember, on moving to the BBC in London in 1981, being told various gossipy things by my new colleagues, and these included: “Savile likes them young” and “don’t get on the wrong side of Jimmy Savile if you value your kneecaps”. 
No actual evidence, of course, just part of the pack of character-sketch gossip shared with the new boy, alongside other snippets of variable authenticity, such as:  “Watch out for Person X, he’s certifiably insane” (he was); “Person B is a raving nympho” (not in my experience);  “Person F is too mean to ever buy the drinks” (true);  “Person W is convinced people are out to kill him” (they may well have been, no-one could blame them, but they’ve not succeeded yet and they’ve had decades to try!).

Did the BBC know?   It would be difficult to believe that nobody in the upper echelons of the management had heard the rumours, but does that mean The BBC, as a body corporate, definitely knew what was going on?  In my view, no.   Could efforts have been made to investigate the rumours?  Perhaps, though who would have made those efforts?  The BBC’s in-house Investigations unit was, back then, principally concerned with theft of property, or fingers-in-the-expenses affairs.  It wasn’t a quasi-police operation.  The Personnel Department was responsible for the behaviour of members of staff, and those on staff-style contracts, but Savile would never have been on their books; as a freelance contributor, he’d have been “managed” by whichever programming department had booked him for a show.  And, of course, the business of programming departments and channel controllers is getting programmes made and broadcast, not running investigations. 

It’s also worth noting that the world was a very different place throughout most of the Savile era.  Whilst in no way excusing what seems to have gone on – and there’s never any excuse for rape and/or child abuse – concepts such as grubby old men letching after young flesh were accepted as core components of British humour.  Slap, tickle, chase, touch, snigger, grope, it was all a bit of laugh, wasn’t it?  Well, no, it turns out that some of it wasn’t, actually, but those were different times, and the people for whom it was not a laugh had far fewer opportunities to speak out and be heard than they would now.

Could it happen again now?   No.  And, in a sense, yes.  Yes, insofar as bad behaviour by some stars is still routinely tolerated and covered up.  Not just at the BBC, but throughout the entertainment industry.  To pretend otherwise is nonsense.  The brutal truth of Showbiz is, as it has always been, that if you want to have big star entertainers, you have to deal with the fact that some of them will not be the perfectly balanced human beings you might wish for.   Whether it be drink, drugs, girls, boys, kleptomania, sheep, there are foibles, some benign, others not.  As a manager in an entertainment organisation, you are driven to get the best value from your stars and, on occasion, that may mean there’s  pressure to look the other way. 
Lower down the ladder, for Production people, there can sometimes be an uncomfortable tightrope to walk.  Imagine, for example, a scenario in which the star you’ve been tasked with producing behaves repeatedly in a way you consider unacceptable.  Supposing, say, he insists on getting his penis out and waving at you, before urinating in a paper cup and offering you the contents.  You’re not enjoying this and you go to the boss to complain.  In the Human Resources text book, the boss listens sympathetically, investigates and then deals firmly with the miscreant.  On planet real-life, there’s no guarantee the boss will do any such thing, and every probability that, if you go in proclaiming that the town ain’t big enough for the both of you, you’ll find yourself on the next outa-town bus to Nowheresville, while Mr Willy Waver moves on to wave his member at your hapless successor. 

The stars still have great power.  The entertainment management are in thrall to them.  Not only do they hold the key to ratings success, but they hold sway with the managers’ personal prestige too.  Channel controllers bask in the reflected glory of their big signings and they won’t let that go easily. If there’s a threat, the first instinct will often still be to “circle the wagons”.  In some sectors, too, there may sometimes be an uncomfortable closeness between stars’ agents and broadcast management.  Too many invitations to glittering dinners, and sometimes hedonistic events, may have a dangerously corrosive effect on strong objective decision-making.

In those ways, the system is as flawed as ever.  So, could Savile happen again?  Yes, but then again, no.  No, largely because of today’s access to communications and technology.  The whole world of Social Media and mass communication would now spread the story with speed, and it is now easier for a concerned in-house whistleblower to get word out.  Improvements in communications also mean that Police forces are now able to share intelligence and correlate those serial allegations which, a decade or two ago, would have been seen in isolation and then consigned to a soon-to-be-forgotten drawer in the local card index.  And, crucially, the tide is turning in favour of victims, who have more ways of speaking out and will, hopefully, be growing in confidence that they will be listened to.

Resignations at the BBC?   There may well be, but it’s hard to see how they’ll be more than sacrificial scalps, and I hope that the BBC and the Trust will be able to keep in proportion the sometimes hysterical calls from the Press, a sector - let's remember - with little of which to be proud when it comes to either outing Savile or honestly investigating its own errors and omissions.



1 comment:

Paul F said...

Have to say, Chazza, that has to be one of the more sober and candid assessments of the whole Savile thing. Interesting reading, especially in the light of the whole new storm of hurt that kicked off on Saturday 10th Nov, about a week after your post.