Jimmy Savile: Should the BBC conduct its own inquiry?

3 October 2012

ITV will tonight broadcast allegations that Sir Jimmy Savile molested and raped young women, including teenagers, during the 1970s. One former BBC employee alleges that she was a witness.  Yesterday a historic rape allegation made against the entertainer was referred to Scotland Yard which led the BBC to announce that police forces in receipt of allegations would receive the full support of its investigations unit. Now, following reports that Sir Jimmy Savile’s relationships with underage women was an ‘open secret’ at the BBC – members of the culture, media and sport select committee (“the select committee”) are putting pressure on the BBC to conduct its own inquiry.

What might the value of a BBC led inquiry be? Inquiries – either public or conducted by a corporation itself – have become an important social tool in recent times, allowing society to come to terms with events which undermine public confidence in its institutions. A public inquiry held under the Public Inquiries Act 2005 seeks to restore public confidence by carrying out a, ‘full, fair and fearless investigation into the relevant events' (Thames Safety Inquiry) and identify lessons to be learned. Although any inquiry conducted by the BBC would be an internal corporate inquiry (a public inquiry could be ordered but is unlikely to be), the need to examine whether lessons need to be learnt will be a paramount consideration.

The BBC has already agreed to assist police forces investigating criminal complaints, and it might be thought that there is no value in the BBC carrying out its own parallel investigation. However, members of the select committee appear to be putting pressure on the BBC to examine the nature and extent of the rumours and concern circulating amongst its employees and performers about Jimmy Savile’s relationships with young girls and women, and how far up the Corporation’s chain knowledge of the rumours went. 

If concerns were as extensive as press reports suggest, two further questions (not yet identified by the select committee) are likely to be asked: (1) why did members of staff not feel able to raise concerns or make complaints at the time and, (2) is the BBC satisfied that members of staff would feel confident to challenge similar inappropriate behaviour by a celebrity today?

These are important questions. The first of those questions can only be answered by speaking to the members of staff and performers concerned. However, the second question – perhaps where the real public interest lies – the BBC may feel it can answer without launching its own inquiry.

Jimmy Savile’s alleged conduct appears to have taken place from the 1960s through to the 1980s, in an era when the safeguarding of children was much less prominent. Since then, legislative measures such as The Children Act 1989, the Protection of Children Act 1999, and The Childrens Act 2004, together with a number of high profile public inquiries has significantly changed this landscape. Public bodies are now required to, and demonstrably take child protection very seriously. The BBC is no exception. Its own child protection policy has been in force for many years and it has put in place divisional managers who are responsible for child protection and ensuring compliance with the policy. The policy states that if members of staff suspect a child or young person may be at risk (including in relation to allegations against BBC staff) the situation should be referred to the relevant divisional manager. There is nothing to suggest that the operation of this policy is anything other than robust, and its existence together with a heightened awareness of child safeguarding would seem to make it much more likely that complaints against high profile performers would now be reported.

However, as other recent public inquiries have highlighted, a policy is only effective if it is enforced and reference to this policy alone may not be felt to be sufficient, particularly where there is evidence that BBC employees felt unable to refer concerns in the past. Members of the select committee putting pressure on the BBC may take the view that it will only be possible to establish whether lessons need to be learned by examining the question: what was it about the BBC that prevented employees coming forward to complain for over thirty years?

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