Was there ever, in television history, a faster fall from grace? It’s only a matter of weeks since a huge auction of Jimmy Savile’s belongings raised 320,000 for charity.
Then, on 3 October, came ITV1’s Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile. Suddenly, in the words of Mark Williams-Thomas, the detective-turned-investigative reporter who made the programme, the “celebrated eccentric could be seen for what he was: one of the most prolific sex offenders ever to be uncovered in this country”. Rarely can a single documentary have had such power.
Now Williams-Thomas has made a second programme about Savile, investigating the full length of the TV star’s four decades of abuse, right back to his days with Radio Luxembourg in the 1950s, where he presented The Teen and Twenty Disc Club (a show whose very name now makes one shudder). The documentary will also take a long hard look at how Savile got away with his abuse for so long – how he worked his way into the heart of the British establishment and whether it turned a blind eye.
So is it a coincidence that so much of the presenter’s work revolved around children? Williams-Thomas, who has spoken to three dozen of his victims, wasn’t sure at first. But, speaking to RT as he put the finishing touches to tonight’s follow-up report, he says he’s now made up his mind.
“In the previous programme it was unclear what came first. But I can very clearly tell you now that he created his television series as a vehicle for his offending. I believe he engineered his programmes within the BBC and Radio Luxembourg in order to gain access to children. The classic examples are Top of the Pops, Savile’s Travels, Jim’ll Fix It – all of them gave him access to young children. That’s why there were so many victims.”
“In the first programme, we focused on a fairly short time scale. Now we’re able to show that Savile’s offending behaviour spanned four decades and many hundreds of victims. This isn’t just someone who offended only against 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds. It’s someone who offended against ten-year-olds.”
Williams-Thomas, who specialised in child sex abuse inquiries during a career with Surrey Police, was due to be part of the original Newsnight investigation late last year that was controversially abandoned. The former child protection officer had been brought in to analyse the quality of evidence Newsnight had amassed and to “give an interview about people in positions of trust who abuse children”.
After the Newsnight item was scrapped, Williams-Thomas decided to keep on digging – and, when he’d collected enough material of his own, he approached ITV, which immediately agreed to back his investigations and broadcast the results.
Williams-Thomas knew that he was onto a big story – while with the police, he’d worked on the prosecution of radio presenter Jonathan King for child sex offences – but nonetheless he was taken aback by the reaction when the Savile documentary was aired.
He says the enormity of the accusations hit him when news came through that Savile’s headstone had been removed from his grave, on the instructions of his family, crushed and placed into landfill.
“It was such a significant step. I don’t know why it shocked me but it did. It was a visual image – a message to the public from the family that said: ‘We believe this man was a child abuser’.”
Before broadcast, members of Jimmy Savile’s family had branded the ITV documentary “disgusting”. Now they were acknowledging its truth. “I think they have behaved in an incredibly respectful way,” says Williams-Thomas. “The statement [they issued] was very considered and appropriate.”
Meanwhile, the evidence against Savile continues to mount. At the time of writing, the BBC, Savile’s estate and five other institutions have received legal notification from 43 victims seeking damages for alleged sexual abuse. The Met Police’s Operation Yewtree says that more than 300 potential victims have been identified.
Williams-Thomas says he has absolutely no doubts about the integrity of the victims he’s spoken to – but admits to being wary when compensation-seeking lawyers wade in, if only because when money enters the equation, people might (wrongly, he feels) begin to question the victims motives.
“When solicitors become involved, it’s very easy for people to say the only reason they’ve come forward is for money and it gives the public an opportunity to fly that flag. I think it’s unjustified but it does give people the opportunity to do that.”
“That’s not the case for any of the victims we’ve included in the programme or any of those I’ve spoken to. They don’t want a penny from Savile. They just want the truth to be on record, to be listened to, to be believed.”
Meanwhile, as police continue to investigate alleged accomplices, the Savile story refuses to die. And the interest comes not just from the media here in Britain. “I’ve had calls from all around the world: America, Australia, Germany, France. This is even news in China – I did a detailed interview for Chinese state television.”
The fascination overseas is, of course, not because Jimmy Savile was a household name in Beijing, New York or Berlin but because the BBC is. There’s no doubt that the corporation, which has three separate investigations running, has been damaged not only by the revelations about Savile – some of them committed on BBC property – but also by the decision to scrap Newsnight’s original investigation into Savile’s crimes.
Williams-Thomas is aware that his scoop has harmed the corporation but says: “To me the focus was never the BBC; it has always been Jimmy Savile as the offender.” In any case, if the BBC has serious questions to answer – and it has, he says – so does Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Broadmoor and the other institutions that gave Savile the access he sought to vulnerable children. “This was a man who made it his hobby to open up every single door that he could. At the height of his fame, there wasn’t anywhere he couldn’t go.”
So where will all this end? Williams-Thomas says the final chapter will be played out not on television but in the legal system. Jimmy Savile, who died in October 2011, has escaped justice. “But I think there will be further arrests over the forthcoming days, weeks and months of people who were party to offending alongside Savile.”