LONDON – The first Tuesday in May was an awkward day for BBC newsreaders. Once again the main headlines were dominated by scandals within their own institution. One of their most well-known presenters had admitted to 14 indecent assaults on 13 victims aged as young as 9, and a report was published citing “a strong undercurrent of fear” that stopped BBC employees speaking out about sexual harassment or bullying.
“Stuart could do what Stuart could do,” said a former studio worker on It’s A Knockout, the BBC gameshow that Stuart Hall hosted in Manchester. And no one would dare blow the whistle.
It is just over a month since Tony Hall assumed his position as director general of the BBC and he has already faced two public skirmishes. There was an almighty row over Panorama’s covert filming in North Korea, with the corporation accused of hoodwinking students about the presence of an undercover reporter on their trip.
And then there was controversy over whether or not to play “Ding Dong the Witch is Dead,” the song from the “Wizard of Oz” that was appropriated as an anti-Thatcher anthem and sent to No. 2 in the charts in the days after her death.
The scars of the Savile affair, of course, are still livid. And no one has forgotten the fiasco when Lord McAlpine was wrongly accused of pedophilia as a result of a Newsnight investigation. Now the new director general faces calls for another inquiry.
Two of Stuart Hall’s victims, who say they were sexually abused on BBC premises, are calling for a full investigation, backed by MPs including Labour’s Gerry Sutcliffe and Tory Philip Davies, who sit on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
There are also cases involving BBC staff’s own allegations of sexual harassment, and claims for compensation by victims of both Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall.
One commentator said this weekend that the 1970s were a “perilous time for women,” when the office groper was a daily obstacle. Paul Jackson, a former entertainment director at the BBC said: “I think that fame and the fans it brings with it, coupled back in those days with a suddenly sexualized society, led a lot of people to believe that anything goes.
“I’m really not saying that some of these things were in any way justifiable but equally it is hopeless to try and apply today’s mores to a very different time.”
But it is too easy to dismiss this as merely a historical problem, says Alan Collins, the lawyer representing victims of both Hall and Savile. “It’s very disingenuous to use that term historic. It’s very common for victims to take a long time to come forward, there’s a misplaced guilt, there’s shame, there’s embarrassment. It’s a particularly brave person who takes on a celebrity when they are powerful figures at the pinnacle of their career, winning awards.”
Nor does the problem of sexual harassment appear to have died out at the BBC. The last offense recorded against Savile was in 2006, while the Dinah Rose review into the culture of the BBC, published last week, identified 37 alleged sexual harassment cases between April 2006 and last November.
Claudia Rosencrantz, the former controller of entertainment for ITV, said that celebrity could open the doors to disaster. “For me it’s quite simple,” she said. “If someone has a propensity to abuse, and also has the opportunity, which of course celebrity and power of any kind offers, then that is a recipe for disaster. It really is high time all of this came out. People who one always felt were sleazebags actually are.”
It would be wrong of course to see the BBC as incubating a uniquely iniquitous culture. Donald Findlater, director of research and development at the Lucy Faithfull Foundation and director of Stop it Now! U.K. and Ireland said: “Any suggestion that this is a unique problem of the BBC is a distraction. There’s acres of children being abused every day. Maybe with celebrities they’re on a different psychological track with children, because they’re people they look up to, who are big in their world, but we could say the same about sports coaches.”
But many, said Findlater, might well never have been abusers in an ordinary job. “That’s my assumption with some of these people — they would have been harmless in ordinary life. It’s the context in which they find themselves but that’s the same for, say, teachers, who train with no intent toward children but then find themselves in perhaps facing a life crisis and are feeling vulnerable, in a situation of temptation, and suddenly thoughts are developing. They never planned to be sexual offenders.”
Stuart Hall, 83, pleaded guilty to the crimes in court three months after he dismissed the allegations as “pernicious, callous, cruel and, above all, spurious.” His guilty plea led to a charge of rape of a 22-year-old woman in 1976 being left on file. His producer at BBC Manchester at that time, Linda McDougall, said Hall had a reputation as “a ladies’ man” and was a “complete nuisance.” At the BBC an old medical room was reserved for his use.
“He had lady friends who came and went happily on to the BBC premises and kept him occupied during the afternoons. I can’t say that he was having sex with them there because I wasn’t ever in the medical room at the same time, but I always thought that they weren’t coming for cups of tea at the BBC in the afternoons. But of course everyone else knew. We all made jokes about it. You would have had to have your eyes shut and not been at work at all to not know what was going on. He was one of those people who had his hands all over you and all over anyone female who came in.” She had, though, been shocked to discover his offenses related to children.
If the BBC is to learn lessons from these scandals and the mass of victims whose lives have been left damaged, it has to bring its “talent” off the pedestal, said Will Wyatt, former director of BBC Television and author of “The Fun Factor: A Life in the BBC,” based on the diaries he kept over a 34-year career.
“I never met Stuart Hall and didn’t need to. His glory days were before I turned up. The difference for me is dividing between what was blokey, coming on to women, not very nice, and importuning, which is quite different. I’m happy to say that in my time a lot of the people you saw on the screen were what you met. It is simply not the case that this (Hall’s case) was how most people were. But temptations do come people’s way, in showbiz, in theater, in pop music. I would be amazed if some bonking didn’t go on somewhere in the BBC.”
He said the 1960s review show Late Night Line Up was notorious for its hospitality room. “I am sure some people had sex there!
“The (admission of guilt) is not very good for the BBC, it is very much part of that Jimmy Savile era, it doesn’t reflect well on the way a number of people were behaving. There is a danger of ‘monsterdom’ taking over — that is a danger when people become mega-famous, the danger is always there.”