Child Abuse at the BBC: A Case Study in Plausible Deniability

The report into child abuse at the BBC was finally delivered yesterday.  Retired Court of Appeal Judge Dame Janet Smith presented a number of conclusions into her investigations, which started in 2012, that both answer some questions but, perhaps more importantly, leave considerable concerns as to the behaviour of the BBC both in the past and now.

Originally writing about this in 2012, I noted my concern about not only what staff, producers and management at the BBC knew of Savile’s actions but also how could they not know.  Savile in particular, and Hall to a lessor degree, were being marketed as a champion for children and “wholesome, family entertainment” whilst at the same time people at the BBC knowing at best that they were a unpleasant characters and at worst a predatory abusers.  The original article is here for those who may be interested:

So what does Dame Janet’s report tell us? Probably very little that we didn’t already know or believe was highly likely.  In short it concluded that abuse did happen and that some staff and producers likely knew about this.  Also that a “macho” and “intimidating” culture at the BBC did not assist in any reporting of abuse and that the talent was close to untouchable when it came to their behaviour.  However it also concluded that although staff knew of some instances and rumours, senior staff knew nothing and the corporation as a whole was unaware of any concerns.

This last conclusion is where the problems start.  Dame Janet, a respected and thoughtful Judge, indeed found no evidence of this and from a strictly legal and evidential perspective, which she would clearly adhere to, there is almost entirely the correct conclusion.  Nevertheless, it must be reasonable to suggest, in any understanding of the what had gone on over decades at the BBC, that it is also entirely correct to conclude that senior management at the BBC must have known but not “officially”.

The media, as I know from personal experience, is all about who you know, your connections, your network and your reputation.  And when I say reputation I do not mean your moral integrity or good character, I mean the ability to do a job, to get an audience, to sell a product and in the case of TV, to make things people will watch.  This is particularly so for the “talent” and Dame Janet’s report is clear that all other considerations were secondary to the talent ad that talents was, and probably still is, closely protected.

Although the difference in culture between media and law is enormous, like much of the higher end of British society informal networks are key to getting on.  Just because there is no email (or letter) trail does not mean people were unaware.  When it comes to sensitive or potentially litigious information the rule is rarely to put it on paper.  This is called plausible deniability.  This is the ability of a person, often senior management, to credibly say, because of lack of evidence,  that they had no knowledge of an action that may cause them or their organisation damage.

Dame Janet’s report appears to cry out “plausible deniability”.  Rumour about abuse at the BBC by certain talent appeared wide spread and although less so direct knowledge of abuse was not confined to a small group of people.  As one small example Dame Janet notes that Top of the Pops in the 1970s and and 1980s was  a place that young people were a moral risk.  If we look at that logically, over 20 years of a weekly TV programme there would have been thousands of people in direct contact with a situation that was overtly seen as morally risky.  Whether they be audience members, crew, musicians, producers, researchers and perhaps more directly other presenters, there must have been a considerable number of people “in the know”, either directly or indirectly.  Mustn’t there? Although we are aware of, at most, a handful of complaints, is it likely that almost no one saw anything and/or said nothing? And it must follow that informal networks never mentioned anything? The answer is that both these things are so highlight unlikely that Senior Management at the BBC must have known whether it be a quiet word in the ear, gossip or loose chat at a drinks party.

Newsnight, BBC’s flagship nightly news programme,  ran an item on the evening of the report’s publication at the top of the show ( Having watched it through a few times it comes across as a touch light in its usual rigourousness. An interview with a, now retired, senior manager asked whether he knew anything of Savile’s abuse which he said he did not.  He knew nothing.  However later in the piece it was clear that a view on Savile was well held.  For instance, at a meeting of Child in Need, Savile’s name was put forward and there was a visible shudder from all in the room.  He was to be stayed well clear of.  However the senior manager was never pushed on his denial.  There were no hard hitting questions.  How could you not have known? Were you that incompetent that you didn’t know that abuse was rife in your department?  It may not have been official but did you hear nothing? Did no one have a discrete conversation?  The kind of rigorous question routinely put to politicians on the programme. Instead he was allowed to just deny.  The program presented us with some facts about past and current BBC failings without any great analysis.  For example, was it just Hall and Savile?  If a cover up culture was rife and talent was untouchable, is it likely there were and are other abusers? Incredibly the piece finished with the programme noting that no one at the BBC was willing to appear on the programme.  Such behaviour does not engender confidence that things will change and that lessons have been learnt and considerably more robust questioning need to be put to figure past and present.

Tony Hall, the Director General at the BBC, in his press conference said that abusers had hidden in plain sight for decades. One may suggest this is an oxymoron that conceals an unpalatable truth that there was no hiding but instead an informal network of people not acting or worse still protecting the abusers and themselves.  There appeared to be evidence in plain sight whether they be newspaper articles, interviews with Savile and even a documentary by Louis Theroux aired on the BBC where the accusation of paedophilia was put directly to Savile. If it was such a well hidden secret how did Theroux even know that it was a question that needed answering? It is likely that little effort by an averagely competent manager would have been needed to uncover abuse by Savile if this was so desired. It is not too much of a leap of logic to suggest that the BBC had no such desire.

Liz Dux, a lawyer at Slater Gordon who represent many of Savile’s victims said that managers at the BBC only had to  “scratch at the very surface and a lot of Savile’s offending behaviour would have been revealed”.  She goes on to say that it was unfortunate that Dame Janet did not have the power to compel BBC management to give evidence.  Interestingly she concludes, “with 117 witnesses giving evidence of concern and rumours, it’s implausible to suggest that that this did not reach the upper echelons of the BBC”. It is therefore wholly understandable that she refers to the report as an “expensive whitewash” and that victims of Savile’s abuse are once again left without any plausible conclusions.

This was an opportunity for one of the most admired British institutions to set the tone for child protection, child welfare and a dignified approach to humanity.  Although all the noises coming out of the corporation since the story of the Savile abuse broke were and are positive, to borrow from Liz Dux, even the briefest of scratches at the surface show the all too familiar narrative of large organisations seeking to protect themselves. With Dame Janet stating that there were certainly opportunities to act on Savile and Hall and that a culture of fear and process within the BBC prevented any further action, there are evidently specific issues to learn from.  However Dame Janet, hamstrung by the range of the inquiry, and the BBC as an organisation have missed an opportunity to look more creatively and broadly at the welfare of children and vulnerable people.  Like so many inquiries it has been bogged down in process, procedure and legal frameworks.  To Dame Janet’s credit she looked at the organisational culture and was critical of it both now and in the past.  However the report, like so many before it that rely on a legal underpinning, lacked an appreciation of the informal networks that drive so many British institutions and the ongoing culture of plausible deniability, reputational protection and organisational back covering.

It is important to note that no investigation should rely on gossip and rumour but, like good inquiries, should see patterns and build pictures.  In doing so it should not be afraid to coax people from shadows or if necessary force them out whilst demand answers to the difficult questions.  Unfortunately that takes courage and courage that has only been shown by survivors so far.

Is must be time that we, as a society, take a stand to protect our most vulnerable and not leave our survivors feeling let down.  This takes a mind shift away from the audible shuffle of back covering to a truly open and honest inquiry where the top priorities are: an unswerving and rigorous quest for the whole truth with no consideration for reputational damage whether individual or organisational;  a fuller consideration of the wishes and feelings of survivors over those of the organisation; the thorough protection of the vulnerable in the future and the power to compel to give evidence.  The BBC had a unique opportunity given its stature to shine a light on the abuse of the young and vulnerable, learn lessons and move towards a gold standard of protection but has failed on all counts.


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