Over the past week, an English scandal of a peculiarly lurid and revolting kind has metastasized into an American media drama. Until recently not many Americans, happily for them, had ever heard of Jimmy Savile. Even now the astonishing story of how Savile, during the many decades that was one of the BBC’s best-known and supposedly best-loved television stars, had gratified his pedophile appetite by abusing a large number of young girls, might not have registered across the Atlantic, but for another player in the story, Mark Thompson.
He was Director-General or executive head of the BBC from 2004 until September 2012. On August 14, before he left the BBC, it was announced that he would become president and chief executive of the New York Times Company effective from November. But his role in the Savile affair—which is to say what Thompson knew and did, or did not know and did not do—has led to convulsions, or what looks like very much like a peasants’ revolt on Eighth Avenue.
From this side of the Atlantic what’s surprising is not that Thompson’s appointment was criticised at the Times after the Savile scandal broke but that it had apparently met with so little opposition before. As Ruth Dudley Edwards puts it in the Daily Telegraph, Thompson has lived almost all his adult life “at the expense of the British taxpayer.” He made his way up “through the mind-and-creativity-numbing bureaucracy created by John Birt (the lamentable Director-General of the BBC from 1992 to 2000), and—as an overpaid Director General—showed little inclination for reform.” Was he really the man with the flair and commercial acuity to lead the Times through the grave challenges it faces?
In fact, Thompson only became “D-G” by a kind of accident. Having joined the BBC as in 1979 as a trainee straight from Oxford, he ascended until 2002 when he went to head the rival commercial Channel 4. His return to the BBC came in the aftermath of the Kelly Affair. Dr. David Kelly was an eminent authority on mass-destructive weaponry who was dismayed by the grotesque exaggerations and distortions of the “dossiers” about “WMD” put out by Tony Blair’s Downing Street. Kelly privately expressed his concerns to a BBC radio reporter, who said on air quite casually that the intelligence about WMD had been “sexed up” by Downing Street, a phrase with which almost no one would now argue. Kelly’s identity was subsequently, though surreptitiously, revealed by a vindictive Downing Street, and he shortly afterwards killed himself. The official inquiry into his death under Lord Hutton, an obscure judge from Northern Ireland, was published in January 2004. It exonerated Downing Street, absurdly and against all evidence, and placed the blame on the BBC. The Chairman and Director-General of the Corporation felt obliged to resign and Thompson was abruptly recalled as the new D-G. It was not a happy beginning to his tenure, which has now also ended unhappily.
At the heart of the current scandal is Savile, who was a presenter of successive television programmes, from “Top of the Pops” in the 1960s to “Jim’ll Fix It”, aimed specifically at adolescents and children. He became the television personality to end them all, and his charitable work led to not one but two knighthoods, from the Queen and the Pope. He died in October of last year two days before his eighty-fifth birthday.
At the time, “Newsnight”, the 10:30 pm news programme on BBC-2, was already working on an exposure of Savile’s abuse of children, which would have gone out before—and made impossible—the lavish tribute that the BBC was planning to air at Christmas. The segment was ready for transmission when it was abruptly pulled by Peter Rippon, editor of “Newsnight”, for what he claimed were purely editorial reasons, rather than any ulterior consideration. It was there that the matter stalled, until this autumn.
On October 1, the rival ITV channel screened a programme about Savile’s crimes, and then on October 22 “Panorama”, another BBC show, broadcast a programme with horrific accusations from middle-aged women who had once been Savile’s under-age prey, and asked what had led to the “Newsnight” story being spiked. (One might add that the BBC, like many large organisations, not least media organisations, is the proverbial vipers’ nest; there’s no love lost between rival programmes, and back-stabbing is a popular participation sport at Television Centre in West London.)
One question is how Savile got away with it. Wisdom after the event is always easy, but I can honestly say that I found Jimmy Savile entirely loathsome from when he first disfigured our screens nearly half a century ago. His success has to be explained in terms of group psychology or sociology. To an objective eye, even making allowances for pop culture, he was completely talentless, as he contorted his face and mouthed inane catch-phrases or witless jokes. But he was a poor boy made good, he worked for charities, and his very freakishness—the shoulder-length peroxide-blonde hair, the gold lamé track suits, the cluster of necklaces, the vast phallic cigar—played to a notorious English fondness for eccentrics.
Even so, the accusations against Savile are stomach-churning, and breathtaking. He was given free run of an “approved school” for disturbed girls, a mental hospital, and even the “psychiatric prison” at Broadmoor, where he picked his victims. And to make it even worse, his pedophilia was something like an open secret, which he himself joked about. The “Panorama” programme read out chilling extracts from his memoirs when he almost seemed to be taunting readers about his taste for under-age girls. There was also a hideous television clip from 1974 in which Savile hugs a young girl and says, “If I was a chimpanzee and being naughty what would you do to me?” We now know just what he wanted her to do to him.
Sometimes the matter was publicly raised. In 1990, the trenchant newspaper interviewer Lynn Barber met Savile. “I was nervous [most uncharacteristically for her!] when I told him: ‘What people say is that you like little girls.’ He reacted with a flurry of funny-voice Jimmy Savile patter, which is what he does when he's getting his bearings: ‘Ah now. Sure. Now then. Now then. First of all, I happen to be in the pop business, which is teenagers – that's No 1...’” and so on.
Weirder still were two clips shown on “Panorama”. In one, a programme called “When Louis Met Jimmy” from 2000, Savile sat in the back of a car with Louis Theroux and said breezily that, by repeating “I hate children,” he had deflected charges that he was a paedophile. And anyway, “How does anyone know whether I am or not?” In another, from 1999, Savile appeared on the comedy quiz “Have I Got News For You”. Ian Hislop mentioned the mysterious trailer which went everywhere with Savile. “What do you do in the caravan?” Hislop asked, to which Savile replied, “Anyone I can lay my hands on.” Big joke. Strange country.
By the time Thompson was appointed D-G in 2004, Savile had retired, but the question remains how much Thompson knew about the rumours, or about the pulled “Newsnight” item. He first denied having any knowledge, which could seem reprehensible though maybe also plausible in an organisation as huge, ramshackle and dsyfunctional as the BBC. But Thompson then changed his tune and remembered having heard something, which suggests at best that he suffers from selective amnesia.
His appointment at the New York Times caused astonishment at the BBC and in Fleet Street, and also, one surmises, at the Times. Thompson isn’t a fool or a villain, but nor is there any evidence that he is a dazzling intellect or brilliant innovator rather than a diligent and assiduous company man who rose without trace, as they say. “Another Widmerpool,” a friend at the BBC tells me, intending the character in Anthony Powell’s wonderful novel-sequence A Dance to the Music of Time who moves effortlessly and inexplicably upward.
Not that affable mediocrities are rare at the BBC. Among its other problems, the BBC has become something of a self-perpetuating oligarchy, which has by no means nurtured and promoted the best managerial or editorial talent. Max Hastings is best known to Americans as a military historian, but he is originally a journalist, and was formerly editor of the Daily Telegraph and then the Evening Standard. He inevitably dealt with various senior personnel of the BBC, and Hastings has said that he rarely met one he thought would be worth hiring for his papers.
Evidently Arthur Sulzberger Jr, the publisher of the Times, takes a different view. Thompson was his choice, and he has reiterated his support for him, even after a startling series of pieces in his own paper questioned his decision. First was Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s independent public editor or ombudsperson, who wrote two pieces raising doubts about Thompson. Then on October 30, Joe Nocera, one of the paper’s better op-ed columnists, published a column which was headed “The Right Man For the Job?” and which—while generously recognising that “Arthur Sulzberger is in a difficult spot”!—clearly implied that Thompson wasn’t.
As an occasional long-distance contributor to that paper, I might add that it is very much to the credit of the Times, its editor, Jill Abramson, and indeed Sulzberger, that these pieces appeared at all. It’s hard to imagine a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch allowing such ruthless self-scrutiny in its own pages. But Sulzbeger surely remains in a tight spot, as does Thompson—not to mention George Entwhistle, his successor as D-G at the BBC, and Lord Patten, its chairman, who have not covered themselves with glory during this business. And whereas public faith in the BBC remained strong after the fatuous Hutton report, polls show, sadly but not surprisingly, that it has fallen sharply with the Savile affair.
In mediacratic London, odds are being shaded as to how long the BBC's leadership will survive. When Manhattan recovers from Sandy, it would be interesting to find out what people at the Times reckon about their new president's chances.