BBC embroiled in row with Tony Blackburn after Savile review published

BBC embroiled in row with Tony Blackburn after Savile review published

Jane Martinson and Jamie Grierson — Feb 25, 2016

The BBC has become embroiled in a row with one of its longest-serving radio presenters on the day in which the broadcaster was heavily criticised by an independent inquiry for the way it had allowed stars like Jimmy Savile to abuse women and children for nearly 50 years.

The BBC director general, Tony Hall, said on Thursday that the corporation had decided to “part company” with Tony Blackburn because, he said, the presenter had failed to fully cooperate with one element of Dame Janet Smith’s report into sexual abuse by Savile and others at the BBC.

Blackburn, the first DJ to broadcast on Radio 1 when it launched in 1967, threatened to take legal action against the corporation, claiming he had been made a scapegoat for its historical failings.

Saying that he had been “hung out to dry”, Blackburn denied in evidence that he had ever been interviewed by BBC staff about an episode dating back to 1971 when it was suggested that he had been involved in “seducing” 15-year-old Claire McAlpine after meeting her at a recording of Top of the Pops. McAlpine took her own life a few weeks after the alleged incident. Blackburn said that the allegation that he had been involved with McAlpine was withdrawn at the time.

Asked why the BBC sacked the presenter, Tony Hall said that he believed that Blackburn had not cooperated fully with Smith’s inquiry: “So many survivors and witnesses have honestly and openly cooperated fully and at great personal cost to themselves. As Dame Janet has said, she’s rejected his evidence, and she has explained very clearly why.

“I have to take that extremely seriously. My interpretation of that is that Tony Blackburn fell short of the standards of evidence that such an inquiry demanded.”

The BBC had said Blackburn had been interviewed about the episode by executives in the early 1970s, but Blackburn insisted that was not the case. He said: “Given Dame Janet Smith’s concerns of a culture of fear in coming forward at the BBC, the fact that I have been scapegoated for giving my honest account and best recollections of those events 45 years ago … what whistleblower at the BBC would ever come forward when they see the way they have hung me out to dry?”

In an exhaustive report published on Thursday, Smith found that deference towards “untouchable” celebrities such as Savile and Stuart Hall, the former It’s a Knockout presenter jailed in 2013, allowed both men to abuse scores of women and children, some as young as eight and some while actually on air.

Jimmy Savile was a regular visitor to Prime Minister Thatcher’s country retreat at Chequers.

Her inquiry, which began in October 2012, found that an increasingly competitive and uncertain working environment meant that BBC employees still feared reporting abuse and taking on the broadcaster’s stars. “The BBC must resist the temptation to treat what happened then as being of limited relevance to today. It clearly is not,” she warned.

Tony Hall apologised to the survivors of abuse and promised: “We will learn the lessons from these terrible times.”

Having talked to over 800 people and interviewed over 380, the report found “serious failings” at the BBC and heard from 117 people about rumours of Savile’s behaviour. It also identified five missed opportunities when complaints about the abuse of both Savile and Stuart Hall were ignored. However, it ultimately concluded that although the broadcaster could have stopped the abuse and failed to do so, the criminal behaviour was largely the fault of the perpetrators and therefore the BBC was not corporately responsible.

Liz Dux, a lawyer at Slater & Gordon who represents 168 survivors of Jimmy Savile’s abuse, immediately accused the £6.5m report of being an “expensive whitewash”. However, she later told the Guardian that Tony Hall’s response had “relieved” her clients and “went a long way towards accepting corporate responsibility”.

Smith, a former court of appeal judge, told a press conference that the report made “sorry reading” for the BBC. She blamed ongoing police investigations for a year-long delay once the report was essentially finished.

Although the report said that the worst excesses of a culture it described as “macho” and “sexist” had improved, there was little cause for complacency. “I do not think there is any organisation that can be completely confident that it does not harbour a child abuser,” she said.

However, job insecurity and the culture of “deep reverence” for celebrities had led to special problems. “I was told that an atmosphere of fear still exists today in the BBC possibly because obtaining work in the BBC is highly competitive and many people no longer have the security on an employment contract,” she wrote.

She also found that the corporation had little regard for the children in its care. “The BBC appears to have been much more concerned about its reputation and the possibility of adverse comment in the media than in actually focusing on the need to protect vulnerable young audiences,” she wrote.

As part of its plans for a new “open BBC”, Tony Hall said the corporation would launch a campaign explaining its whistleblowing procedures, and review its policies and procedures on child protection, complaints and investigations. The BBC is working with the NSPCC, and Hall promised a full audit of existing policies to “bring closure to this dark chapter”.

Esther Rantzen and Jimmy Savile, 1988. Click to enlarge

Dame Esther Rantzen, the former BBC presenter and founder of ChildLine charity, welcomed the “practical” BBC proposals but said that problems continued to exist throughout broadcasting. She spoke of a recent case of sexual harassment at another broadcaster in which a young woman felt she couldn’t complain about the behaviour of so-called “talent”.

The report, which runs to 372,400 words, found evidence of abuse which started in 1959 and did not end until 2006 for Savile, who died in 2011. In total, Savile sexually assaulted 57 girls or women and 15 boys or men. Three incidents of rape and attempted rape took place on BBC premises, Smith said, with the youngest rape victim just 10.

Tony Hall, who called the report into the BBC’s culture “one of the most important in the corporation’s history”, said the stories of abuse detailed in the report were “once read, never forgotten”.

The report found that one complainant was told to “keep your mouth shut; he is a VIP” while talent were “treated with kid gloves and rarely challenged”.

Among the five missed opportunities identified in the report, two relate to Top of the Pops. The first, in 1969, saw a 15-year-old girl escorted off the premises after telling a production assistant that Savile had unzipped her hot pants and put his hand inside her knickers. In 1976, a girl reporting abuse on camera was told it was “just Jimmy Savile mucking about”.

In 1973, the controller of Radio 1 and Radio 2, Douglas Muggeridge, asked Savile about rumours he had heard but dropped the matter when Savile simply denied them.

A related inquiry into Stuart Hall, the former presenter, also concluded that he had abused 21 female victims at the BBC, with the youngest aged 10, between 1967 and 1991, but no complaints were passed on to senior management.

Earlier, Blackburn had tweeted his thanks to those he said had offered him support.

The Kent radio station KMFM said it was standing by Blackburn, who hosts a weekly show.

“KMFM will be supporting Tony Blackburn fully and will be continuing his broadcast contract,” said a spokesman for the station. “His show will air as normal this Sunday between 4pm and 7pm on our stations. He is a great asset, a fantastic broadcaster and someone we are proud to work with.”

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