While Americans have been preoccupied with the coming presidential election, the controversy over the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya, economic woes and now, the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, over in Great Britain, one of the nation’s — and the world’s — most revered media institutions is reeling over shocking allegations regarding one of its most beloved personalities.
Flamboyant disc jockey, BBC TV host (“Top of the Pops”) and charity fundraiser Sir James Wilson Vincent “Jimmy” Savile, who died in Oct. 2011 at the age of 84, is at the center of an evolving scandal, as hundreds of allegations of child sex abuse are coming to light. Police are looking into claims that Savile may have sexually abused roughly 300 young people — mostly girls and some boys — over a 40-year period.
Complicating the situation for the BBC are reports that the taxpayer-supported network aired a Christmas tribute to Savile last year, while, at about the same time, shelved an investigation by its “Newsnight” program into the sex-abuse charges.
This, in turn, has prompted inquiries into the culture at the BBC — especially in the wake of claims that Savile engaged in abuse on BBC premises — and why no action was taken against Savile over the course of decades.
Known for his mop of blond hair, cigars and colorful clothing, Savile was the host of several music and variety programs during the ’60s and ’70s. While largely unknown outside the U.K., he was a large media presence for those who grew up during that era.
This scandal comes on the heels of the “phone hacking” investigation, in which British tabloids published by News International, a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. were accused of gaining illegal access to the cellphone voicemail messages of celebrities and others, as well as police bribery and using undue influence in publishing stories.
BBC News did extensive coverage of the investigation, only to now find itself the center of controversy.
On Wednesday, Nov. 28, BBC America premieres Season 2 of the BBC-produced “The Hour,” a drama set in the late 1950s and focusing on the anchorman (Dominic West, “The Wire”) and staff of an hourly BBC news program.
For “The Hour” writer and producer Abi Morgan, watching the Savile scandal unfold has been particularly painful.
“It was always going to happen, wasn’t it?” says Morgan of the BBC’s reversal of fortune. “The tables are always going to be turned at some point.”
Asked how she thinks the Savile affair will affect the BBC’s reputation, Morgan says, “Yeah, it’s not great. I hope it will be distilled and identified as being something that … if there had been a problem, it will be exposed and there will be an open inquiry about it.
“It’s very surprising and really disappointing that it happened so recently. We’ve all come away feeling battered and yet hopefully cleansed by the aftermath of the phone hacking and saying, ‘God knows, hopefully it won’t happen again, this level of corruption and editorial abuses.’
“But then you hear something like this happening, and your heart sinks. It’s another kind of kick in the balls for good journalists.”
However distasteful the phone-hacking revelations were, no children were harmed.
“No, absolutely,” says Morgan. “On the wide scale, you wonder what else has been covered. It always begs the point, ‘What issues were being covered up the whole time?’ It’s deeply depressing. It’s a very, very depressing reflection, I would say, on the world and on our entire ’70s childhood.
“I think everybody’s having to slightly rewrite their childhood about Jimmy Savile.”
Of course, when something like this comes out, people often look back with fresh eyes and realize they should have seen it coming.
“The truth is,” says Morgan, “Jimmy Savile has always looked like that dirty old uncle that you don’t want to sit on his knee. On a deep level, oddly, I don’t think anyone is that surprised to discover that he was a horrible predatory pedophile.
“He just looks like a stereotype, and he’s proved himself to be a stereotype, and that’s what’s really depressing.”
Asked if she thinks this will permanently damage the brand of BBC News — in particular in the wake of the questions over “Newsnight” — Morgan says, “I think the brand of the BBC is bigger than this scandal. I hope it is. It would be very naive if anybody thought this reflects on the BBC now.
“To be honest, I don’t know enough about how it’s supposed to play out to comment on that. The scandal at ‘Newsnight,’ well, they didn’t choose to cover that story, and that means ITV was able to pick up the story and expose it … (that) has been a huge mistake.
“As tragic and terrible as it is, it’s also a news story, so the fact that it is having its moment of recognition … it won’t sustain as a story. We’ll move on. I also hope it’s not a story that will be denied.
“It’s the responsibility we have not, living in a society that’s not only able to interrogate our present but our past. That’s what we’re having to do now, really.”