The Tweenies Jimmy Savile episode – were you really that offended?

Tabloid reports that "fury erupted" after what was obviously an unfortunate error are surely overcooked, says Jack Seale

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The Tweenies Jimmy Savile episode – were you really that offended?
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Jack Seale

Jimmy Savile is back on the front pages today. Two tabloids lead with the news that BBC pre-schooler channel CBeebies repeated a 2001 episode of Tweenies yesterday morning in which Max, the Tweenies' carer, briefly dressed as Savile for a sing-song episode with a Top of the Pops theme. "Fury erupted," we're told.

The BBC says it received 216 complaints. "Tens" of complaints reached Ofcom. But is this really so outrageous as to be front-page news? Were you furious? If so, why?

The reports quote Savile's victims, who of course have every right to be upset if they were watching. Every mention of his name or glimpse of his image in the media must be incredibly upsetting, all the more so if unexpected and in an apparently safe environment such as CBeebies.

But you don't have to denigrate or disrespect their feelings in any way at all to recognise that the damage caused by this gaffe is likely to have been small, in terms of the number of people affected – and that it tells us next to nothing about how seriously the BBC is taking the Savile scandal.

Be clear that in terms of the programme-makers' and channel's intent, we're not in Brand/Ross territory here. The difference between accidentally repeating a decade-old programme at 8.40am on a pre-schoolers' channel, and authoring new content that everyone involved should have known was unbroadcastable, is vast.

CBeebies is probably 95% repeats and, as such, is largely automated. Nobody has sat down and said, "Ah yes, the Jimmy Savile episode of Tweenies. Let's show it on Sunday morning!"

Yes, it's an unfortunate mistake. With the great benefit of hindsight, it's surprising that nobody at the BBC, when the Savile scandal broke last year, thought: "Wait. There's a Tweenies episode where Max dresses up as him!" before expunging the programme from the CBeebies database. Not that surprising, though. The number of people, even at the Beeb, who can remember a particular episode of a show that ran for nearly 400 editions and ceased production 12 years ago must be tiny.

Yet read some reports and you might not even realise that the Tweenies episode was a repeat. This absolutely crucial info is hard to pick out among the screaming headlines, enormous screengrabs, video clips and full transcripts, all of which are presumably not in the least traumatic or offensive. (In fairness to the Daily Mirror, they mentioned it straight away. But another high-profile report waited until the penultimate line.)

Certainly, compared to the number of adults who today have again been unable to avoid Savile's face staring out at them from news-stands, few will have seen the original broadcast. As a parent – sorry, of course that should read "a concerned parent" – of two under-fives, I can tell you that CBeebies is what you plonk the kids in front of while you make their lunch or hang out laundry. You don't generally sit there and watch it with them. My two were indeed watching CBeebies on Sunday morning, but weren't particularly upset by the Savile sketch because they have absolutely no idea who he was.

It's tempting to react strongly based on the idea that a children's channel is the worst possible place to make a Savile-related howler. Tempting, but nonsensical. What does make it a big story is if your newspaper has a strong anti-BBC agenda, under which any misdemeanour is hysterically exaggerated.

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