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Yes, the BBC is penitent over the Savile abuse scandal. And now it must lead

research-paper by Jean Seaton, published by The Guardian

The tone deployed by Dame Janet Smith in unveiling her report on the BBC and its failure to unmask Jimmy Savile was sharp and commanding, but then it couldn’t be otherwise. What she found demanded it. Smith confirmed that the BBC missed multiple opportunities to stop gross abuse because of an atmosphere of fear, and harboured a culture of not complaining about “talent”. A macho culture at the time seemed more concerned to protect the BBC’s reputation than protect girls.

The unveiling of those appalling findings presented the current director general, Tony Hall, with perhaps the biggest challenge of his tenure to date. Today, one of the few consolations the BBC can take from this dark period is that the man in charge seemed to rise to that challenge. Grim-faced and clearly moved, he offered a deeply felt apology to those who had been abused by Savile and Stuart Hall. That was all he could do, but at least he did so credibly. A lawyer for the victims said that the director general’s tone, much more than Smith’s report itself, had a significant impact on how the victims and survivors felt.

That kind of leadership on such an awful day was crucial. Usually, BBC rows are between the corporation and governments or commercial rivals, but the Savile affair surpasses that. The danger here is the prospect of rupture between the BBC and its audiences. The betrayal of the audience breaches the very fabric of the BBC.

Though the criticism will come thick and fast, and much of it will be merited, with his reaction to the report Tony Hall began to mend the BBC. He eloquently praised the bravery of the victims in speaking out. He showed them that their willingness to speak had been an act of public service. He talked about the stories of each of their lives, recognising the dreaded isolation they faced in not being able to talk, not being believed, alone with their horror.

They felt present in Hall’s speech. Perhaps most critically for the victims he said that even though the BBC had not corporately known or understood the abuse, it could have.

Where does it leave the BBC? Oddly, in the best place it has been for several years. Uncompromising in his language and drawing on the clarity of the proper journalist that he is, the director general promised that reform was under way. He promised to use the report – not just to know what happened but also to know what the causes of the abuse were. These were received as genuine promises, but now he must deliver.

That will not be easy. The corporation will have to show it has mechanisms to protect whistleblowers so they feel empowered to report misbehaviour. Smith voiced concerns that BBC staff are still no more likely to report abuse because even now they fear the consequences. Tony Hall will have to reassure them. But how will he do that in a BBC where job security is much more perilous than it was when Savile and Stuart Hall were committing outrages with apparent impunity?

Now, everyone in every media sector is anxious about their jobs; the BBC has lost a quarter of its staff, and many are on short-term contracts. It falls to Tony Hall to somehow hold celebrity power to account.

But that is to fight against the tide. Celebrity has grown, not diminished. It takes new forms and has protected itself in different ways. It manipulates and steers public opinion for its own commercial and political ends. The BBC is right to say that there will be limits to the exercise of celebrity power, but it should not believe that battle will be easily won – the corporation will have to be both resolute and imaginative.

In these terms, it will fall to the BBC to create a new normal. But it will also have another important task. These crimes occurred at the BBC, but they were not of the BBC. If there are problems at the corporation now, they are not exclusive to it. We shine a particular light on the BBC, but what happens there merely reflects what is happening in society and other institutions.

The job of the BBC now is not just to look at itself, but also to take a lead – through its programme-making – in highlighting what we need to know about abuse, not least child abuse, and the misogyny, patriarchy, contempt and money that drives abuse in the places we don’t yet know about. These programmes should be right and proper and authoritative. These injustices are happening now. It must be the BBC’s mission to inform that debate.

It is society’s problem – however, a battered but penitent, determined and imaginative BBC can give a lead. Tony Hall promised the victims that their torment would have an outcome, and his will be a model for other institutions. That is a promise he must keep.



Photo by Siora Photography on Unsplash

Jean Seaton

About Jean Seaton

Jean Seaton is Professor of Media History and the Official Historian of the BBC. She will publish in the Autumn of 2024 the next volume of the Corporations story, Holding the Line: the BBC and the Nation, taking Lord Asa Briggs work forward for Profile Books. This involves everything the BBC did in a tumultuous decade from the conflict in Northern Ireland, to the invasion of the Falklands, to Not the Nine O'Clock News, the Proms, the early music revolution, devolution, Dennis Potter's greatest plays, Attenborough's revolutionary series Life on Earth, and Radio 1s most influential moment, as well as the role of women in the Corporation, programmes for children and a tense and complicated relationship with the government. The historian was given privileged access to BBC archives, but also gained privileged access to state papers. For the first time the Corporation's history is seen in the round. It has depended on several hundred interviews, and explores both the programme making decision that go into the making of an iconic Television series like John le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the high politics around the imposition of the broadcasting ban.


Jean Seaton
25 February 2016
Published By
The Guardian
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