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The Ghost of Broadcasting House

The BBC is entangled in a scandal which has strained relationships between its management and broadcasters, almost to breaking point, and devalued the public’s trust in the BBC.

It is a case study in how inappropriate behaviour can become entrenched and out of control-and how hard it is for a large organisation to deal with it.

In the 1960s, the BBC was slow to adapt to changes in society and audience requirements and was resistant to modernisation. But the explosion of British pop music and “Beatlemania” forced it to reluctantly start to cater for pop music fans.

The BBC looked at Radio Luxembourg, which provided pop music programmes each evening beamed at the UK, and began using some of its most popular freelance presenters on the BBC, including the personality who had been voted as most popular DJ two years running by the readers of a pop music newspaper. His name was Jimmy Savile.

Savile was a flamboyant man with a broad Yorkshire accent, an unusual vocabulary and original approach to presenting, who originally emerged as a dance hall DJ before gravitating towards radio. His “Teen and Twenty Disc Club” very quickly became one of the most popular programmes on Luxembourg’s English service.

The BBC was launching a new television pop music show called “Top of the Pops” and Savile became one of its key presenters. The snazzy dresser who smoked fat cigars and had a two-tone haircut—white on one side and black on the other—soon became a major personality. He also began fundraising for hospitals (where he worked as a part time porter). He walked from John O’Groats to Lands’ End. His charitable work over many years won him civic awards.

Then he died, and the BBC mounted a major tribute programme to him on the main television channel.

There is an old saying that goes, “all that glitters is not gold.” No sooner had his funeral—a large affair—taken place than allegations of sexual offenses appeared. Then it was revealed that the BBC’s own flagship investigative news programme, “Newsnight,” had been investigating his activities for some time, but BBC management had suppressed the story.

The allegations indicated that throughout his career Savile was a serial sex offender and, to the horror of the BBC, had been committing his offenses in their studios.

It got worse. Because of the publicity surrounding Savile’s alleged offending, more and more victims came forward naming more household names with long broadcasting careers at the BBC. Two were sentenced to prison after being found guilty by courts: Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall. Hall was released from prison in December 2015; Harris is still in prison. Further allegations against them have been made and they face further court trials.

The scandal also enmeshed another radio DJ, Dave Lee Travis, who was accused of improperly touching other BBC staff. He was prosecuted and found guilty although not imprisoned, and he still denies the allegations made against him.

The enquiries widened as more allegations flooded in, naming former members of Parliament and pop music personalities. The well known singer Sir Cliff Richard was watching breakfast television at his home in Portugal when the BBC began showing live pictures of a police raid on his apartment in the UK. The BBC had clearly been tipped off in advance, which is against the rules. Richard has now been investigated over allegations which he denies, and the file has been sent to the director of public prosecutions to decide if there is a case to answer.

Allegations were also made against another BBC radio presenter, Paul Gambaccini, who was suspended by the BBC for two years until the DPP (Director of Public Prosecutions) decided in his case there was no case to answer and he was reinstated. A husband and wife who are both presenters on BBC local radio are facing court proceedings concerning alleged sexual offenses, as is a DJ on a local commercial radio network. All three are currently suspended.

It was then revealed that as long ago as the 1950s a radio presenter who died in 1967—who presented record request programmes for children on The Light Programme, the forerunner of BBC Radio 2—had been the subject of complaints by angry parents, whose children had been invited to the radio studio and had been molested there. The BBC at the time had dismissed their complaints as ridiculous and taken no action.

The BBC set up its own internal independent enquiry under Dame Janet Smith. The BBC needed to know urgently what had gone wrong, how their studios had been used for sexual offenses, and for how long. Many of their staff and presenters were required to give evidence to her Committee of Inquiry, which cost the BBC more than £6,500,000 (about $9,400,000)—roughly the value of 45,000 television license fees.

The enquiry, which published its findings in February 2016, found that cultural factors at the BBC stopped staff reporting their concern to managers, especially where those concerns related to presenters or “talent.” The report revealed that a total of 117 BBC employees had heard rumours about Savile. Those who were aware of the rumours should have reported them to management, but did not. Senior management were not aware of the rumours. During the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s young people attending the studio for episodes of Top of the Pops were “at risk of moral danger.” There was still an atmosphere of fear in the BBC.

One DJ on BBC Radio 2—Tony Blackburn, who had often appeared as a presenter on Top of the Pops on television, and is not the subject of any known allegations—came in for criticism in the report. The Committee thought he had not been open with them. Blackburn was sacked by the BBC and his programmes handed to Gambaccini, who revealed that the remaining BBC Radio 2 presenters were appalled at Blackburn’s treatment, and were afraid for their jobs.

It seems that a chasm has opened up between BBC presenting staff and management, and there are campaigns to reinstate Blackburn and sack the BBC Director General, Tony Hall (no relation), instead.

The Government reacted to the scandal by publishing plans to change the way the BBC is governed and to bring its activities under the control of the regulator for the media, Ofcom, thereby ending the BBC’s 90-year independence. The BBC has paid a high price for the renewal of its Charter (license to operate).

We do not prosecute dead people, so the allegations against Savile remain allegations; however, Savile’s ghost will be haunting the corridors of power at Broadcasting House for years to come.

Photo of BBC Broadcasting House by David Jones, used under a Creative Commons license.

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