Saturday, 27 February 2016

The Smith report

Dame Janet Smith's report into the BBC's role in the Jimmy Savile scandal has now been published.  It is an interesting document in a number of ways.

Perhaps the least interesting thing about the report is the behaviour of the dead paedophile who triggered it.  We already knew enough about Savile and what kind of man he was, and I will say no more about him.

The lasting significance of the report lies in its value as a piece of social history and investigative work.  Smith has managed to piece together, painstakingly and in detail, events from decades ago which took place in a now lost culture.

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Smith notes how, from the 1960s onwards, British people's sexual behaviour and attitudes underwent major changes.  Many of the old social and legal restrictions fell away.  Consensual underage sex gained a measure of acceptance, and in the years around 1970 there was talk of formally lowering the age of consent (16 for girls; there was no equivalent age for boys).  As for non-consensual sex, child abuse was not a matter of widespread concern.  Before the 1980s, it was "generally thought to be rare and to occur only in families with poor living conditions".

Nevertheless, Smith is careful to make clear that the 60s and 70s were not a sexual free-for-all.  It was increasingly accepted that teenagers would sleep with each other; but it was never generally accepted that it was perfectly alright for much older men to sleep with girls who were under, or just over, the age of consent.  That belief can, it seems, be traced to the unusual world of showbusiness and groupie culture - a world which intersected with that of the BBC.

The BBC which emerges from Smith's report was a hierarchical organisation.  Managers ruled over a collection of personal fiefdoms, sometimes in an autocratic manner and often without adequate skills or training.  There was something of a clubbable, trebles-all-round culture:
Until the late 1980s, most BBC managers had drinks cabinets in their rooms....  Many informal meetings would be conducted with the aid of alcohol.  Even early morning coffee might be laced with a spirit.  I heard accounts of executives and managers being the worse for wear in the afternoons or at evening engagements.... 
A lot of alcohol was drunk at Controllers’ lunches which occurred on Wednesdays. I understand that little work was done afterwards. 
I heard of managers who would meet in the [staff bar] when it opened at either 11.30am or noon and would remain there, drinking, until it was almost time for last orders in the ‘waitress service’ restaurant. Late lunch would also be accompanied by alcohol. Some staff found that, if they wanted a decision from their managers, they had to see them before the drinking began; it would be no good afterwards.
In essence, the BBC retained elements of the old deferential, gentleman-amateur culture of the Reith years without also retaining the high-minded Reithian ethic.  The organisation's ethos degenerated from paternalism into machismo.  Women were discriminated against.  Both women and men were sexually harassed.  The protection of children and young people was barely even on the agenda, and a show like Top Of The Pops, with its anarchic teenage female audience, was wide open to exploitation.  Making complaints and whistleblowing was discouraged, particularly where misbehaviour from celebrities was concerned.

When sexual wrongdoing did rear its head, the BBC's concern would tend to be for its own reputation rather than for the welfare of the victim.  The BBC's priorities were revealed in 1971, when the "payola" scandal broke over Radio 1.  The corporation showed much more genuine worry over the allegations of financial corruption than it ever did about reports of dubious sexual conduct.

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Smith's team interviewed an astonishing 380 witnesses, and corresponded with many more.  They spoke to everyone, from Michael Grade and Alan Yentob downwards.  Even so, the inquiry occasionally drew blanks.  Some relevant individuals could not be identified.  Not all witnesses who were identified were cooperative.  Others were dead, or died while the inquiry was in progress.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle faced by Smith was the frailty of memory.  Even witnesses whom she found to be honest (and not all of them were) were struggling against the limitations of the human mind.  Men in their 80s had to try to remember minor details of events that had happened when Harold Wilson was prime minister.  Smith's team grappled admirably with this problem.  It is a tribute to their work that the report managed to be as illuminating as it did.

Dame Janet Smith and her inquiry were faced with a distasteful task arising out of unpleasant circumstances, but they have produced a goldmine of historical information about the BBC and wider British society in the late 20th century.