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Wednesday, October 24, 2012 

In danger, as ever, of forgetting the real victims.

There's something almost touching about the way the vast majority of the media gave George Entwistle a kicking for his performance in front of the parliamentary media committee yesterday.  Far from the image of hacks, and editors especially being grizzled, tough and all but impervious individuals, it turns out that their feelings are really rather easily hurt.  Why else would they have been so hysterically critical of the BBC's new director general, only just over a month into the job, if they hadn't been so scarred by their own appearances before the Leveson inquiry?

This isn't to say that Entwistle was convincing yesterday, as on a number of issues he clearly wasn't.  To start with, he most certainly should have been better prepared.  His lack of inquiry into why exactly Jimmy Savile was being investigated by Newsnight when he was told of the potential problem by Helen Boaden is not adequately explained by his stated refusal to interfere in matters outside of his remit.  Postponing the planned tributes to Savile until after the investigation was completed would have a perfectly reasonable precaution to take.  Likewise, his failure to delve deeper into whether Peter Rippon's blog post was completely accurate despite being warned that it was misleading by the producer of Newsnight's spiked report is both perplexing and worrying.  Also in need of clarification is a report in today's Times which suggests Boaden may well have had more input into the investigation than has previously been stated.

Some of the questioning was though both irrelevant and completely over-the-top.  What point exactly was served by Philip Davies inquiring about the names of those who authorised the transporting of young girls to Savile's shows, and then allowed them to stay on afterwards?  Entwistle didn't know because he doesn't need to know; as long as none of those involved are still working at the BBC, which is highly unlikely, it's now a matter both for the police and for the inquiry he's set-up rather than the director general.  Just as off the mark was Therese Coffey's highlighting of a comment by Rippon in an email that the sources they had were "just the women", taking it as proof they weren't being believed.  Rather than challenging her interpretation, pointing out that this is more likely a reference to how they should also question those working on the programmes at the time, he demurred.  Later on, Entwistle was compared to James Murdoch, as though his failings are in some way comparable to the man in charge of running an company that the media committee itself said seemed to be suffering from "collective amnesia" and which Murdoch senior later admitted had instigated a cover-up.

It still took quite some chutzpah for the Sun, of all papers, to splash on Entwistle's problems and describe him as baffled, bumbling and clueless.  Considering that the paper's last editor is currently awaiting trial for perverting the course of justice and conspiracy to intercept communications, a little humility would be nice.  Similarly, as we await Lord Leveson's report, perhaps Paul Dacre could reflect on what it might say about his own paper and editorship, rather than accuse the BBC of "manipulating the facts".  Or perhaps Dacre is annoyed as that's his job.

Just as opportunistic has been Maria Miller, who felt she just had to write to Chris Patten to register her concern at the BBC's ability to investigate itself, despite the media committee deciding they would allow the Pollard review to reach its own conclusions.  It's understandable she might feel aggrieved at how her predecessor nearly lost his job after acting as the minister for Murdoch, but that was hardly the BBC's doing.  Patten was entirely justified in effectively telling Miller what she could do with her concern.

All of this focus on Newsnight runs the risk of taking attention away not from why Savile got away with hiding in plain sight for so long but how.  Monday's Panorama made clear that even if not common knowledge, there were plenty of people who either suspected or had seen for themselves Savile's activities, and yet for the most part they either did nothing about it or their attempts to get it looked into floundered.  Without wanting to criticise those who must now bitterly regret not doing more, it still seems remarkable that some of those who knew didn't push harder, either going to the police or finding others with the same worries and then approaching managers to give their concerns extra weight.

This can't all be explained by the culture of the time; indeed, it was barely cited by those who've now come forward.  Certain commentators, while quick to assign blame to the liberal left either down to permissiveness, or because the abuse took place within the BBC or other state institutions, have ignored almost entirely Savile's links to other parts of the establishment. He befriended both royalty and politicians, spending Christmas at Chequers with Margaret Thatcher throughout the 80s, something the same right-wing tabloid press that worshipped the ground she walked on don't seem to want to discuss.

The greatest difficulty victims of abuse have always faced is being believed, as still shown by the failings of the police, social services and the CPS in Rochdale.  It wasn't political correctness that allowed the rape of vulnerable young girls to continue, but that the victims either weren't believed or even felt by those who should have been protecting them to be "making their own choice".  In an age before child abuse became synonymous with the darkest reaches of the internet, it often took the actual catching of a paedophile in the act for a charge to be brought and a conviction achieved.  Nick Davies wrote a whole series of articles on abuse in the late 90s that are just as applicable today, in spite of the advances in investigation that have been made.  Those in positions of power have always been able, either through connections, lawyers or influence to get their abuses either dropped or hushed up, the testimony of the weak disregarded or ridiculed.

That this now seems to have happened to a limited extent at the BBC is not surprising.  Compared to other powerful institutions that have either dragged their feet or gone into complete denial when faced with such accusations, it has acted with relative speed, albeit not swiftly enough.  What this shouldn't be allowed to become is another witch-hunt, where those who have made limited but understandable mistakes today pay the price for the much greater failings of the past (just as the News of the World should never have been sacrificed in an attempt to save Brooks and the Murdochs).  Savile is dead.  His victims and those who facilitated him are not.

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