For millions of British children, Jimmy Savile was the TV presenter who promised to make their dreams come true. Now it appears he has been haunting the memories of some of them — and could be turning into a nightmare for his former employer, the BBC.
Savile, who died last year, hosted prime-time children’s shows in the U.K., including the wishes-come-true favorite, Jim’ll Fix It, and raised over £40 million ($64 million) for charity throughout his life. But in a documentary aired on British commercial television last week, five women claimed to have been raped, molested or forced to commit sexual acts on Savile when they were underage, often on the premises of the BBC, for whom Savile worked. Since the documentary aired, over 40 women have made similar allegations.
The BBC is now facing accusations of an institutional cover-up as it emerges that producers, press officers, executives and other presenters at the BBC were aware of Savile’s alleged behavior at the time. The publicly funded broadcaster buckled under pressure to acknowledge the “horrifying” allegations last week, vowing to support the police in any investigations, although it has insisted that there is “nothing to suggest any wrongdoing was ignored by management.” Prime Minister David Cameron has described the allegations as “deeply, deeply troubling” and hinted in a television interview that Savile could be posthumously stripped of his knighthood.
Savile, who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990, enjoyed the status of a national treasure in Britain — his list of accolades included even a papal knighthood. When he died last year, approximately 4,000 people journeyed to Leeds to pay their respects to the coffin of such a tireless charity worker. The broad respect he enjoyed may have prevented alleged victims from coming forward. Many of the women who have accused Savile of abusing them say that they didn’t think anyone would believe their claims. Well-known BBC presenter, Esther Rantzen, concluded in the documentary that “the jury is no longer out” on the case.
The allegations made by the women who say Savile abused them when they were children were further supported by an assistant producer from the BBC who spoke in the documentary of opening the door to Savile’s dressing room to find a girl of about 14 sitting on Savile’s lap, with his hand up her skirt.
Industry professionals from the time say that rumors were constantly circulating concerning Savile’s conduct. Rantzen admitted: “We all blocked our ears to the gossip. We made him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable.”
New figures are emerging almost every day with further claims. Former producer of Savile’s BBC radio show Teen Scene, Wilfred De’Ath, told ITV News that he warned Savile — informally — for having spent the night in a hotel with a girl “who was at the most 12 or probably 10.” A former press officer told BBC News that the late Douglas Muggeridge, when in his role as controller of the BBC’s main pop-music station, Radio 1, knew enough to ask his staff to ascertain whether newspapers were on Savile’s trail. And former chairman of the BBC, Lord Michael Grade, told Britain’s Channel 4 News that he “fleetingly” heard rumors when working at BBC television in the 1980s, but did not see cause to address them.
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The accusations against Savile have angered his family members, one of whom criticized the documentary that started the airing of accusations against Savile for being “totally and utterly one-sided.”
It is too early to say what the damage will be to the BBC, but it appears that for some months there has been anger internally about the long-known allegations about Savile. The British press has reported that last year reporters at the BBC evening news show Newsnight were enraged when editor Peter Rippon decided not to air a story his reporters had worked on. Reports say that Newsnight’s journalists had collected the accounts of up to 10 alleged witnesses to crimes apparently committed by Savile, and believed themselves to have sufficient evidence to run a report in December. The BBC has said the story was not broadcast for purely journalistic reasons.
The public response to this news has been one of sadness and anger; comments among those on Twitter complain that childhood memories have been forever “tainted” by the revelations. The memorial plaque at Savile’s former home in the northern seaside town of Scarborough has been vandalized with the words “paedophile” and “rapist” written on it, and security has had to be tightened at the nearby cemetery where he is buried, for fear of attack. Statues and street signs have had to be taken down across the country, and the supermarket chain Asda has withdrawn the sale of Jimmy Savile costumes from its website.
George Entwistle, the director general of the BBC, has apologized to the alleged victims on behalf of the broadcaster. A police investigation into the claims is ongoing.