What one axed ‘story’ tells us about truth and the power of journalism in Britain

Do we really think the people who were hacking the phones never heard a whisper?
  • @queenchristina_

She doesn’t look well.

The woman with the pale face, and wispy hair, who’s gripping a handkerchief as if it was a lifeline, really doesn’t look all that well. “He asked me,” she tells the woman who’s interviewing her, on what should have been Newsnight, but was Panorama, “for oral sex. He promised me that if I gave him oral sex he would arrange for me to go to TV centre. I thought it was disgusting,” she says, and you can tell from her face that she does, and did. “But,” she says, “I did it anyway.”

The woman, who’s called Karin Ward, is talking about how she met Jimmy Savile. She was, she says, 14, and at a school for “emotionally disturbed” girls. He used, she says, to “fondle” her and ask her to “fondle” him back. She went, she says, to TV centre, and to Jimmy Savile’s dressing room, and saw another girl, and another pop star, having sex. Jimmy Savile watched, she says, and laughed.

“I am,” she says, “so full of self-disgust. I can’t believe I did such things. I can’t believe I allowed such things to happen. I can’t believe I didn’t shout from the rooftops ‘make it stop’. But I didn’t.”

When she says these things, she looks sad, but she also looks ill. And, it turns out, she was. When Karin Ward agreed to talk, on Newsnight, about things she had never talked about in public, she had cancer. She didn’t want to talk. She had never wanted to talk, because when she tried she “hadn’t been believed”. But when she was fighting an illness that was trying to kill her, she did. She put herself “through all that stress”, and did. And then Newsnight, or at least the editor of Newnight, decided that the “story” should be “killed”.

We still don’t know why. Even the Director-General of the BBC, who had to answer questions from MPs for two hours yesterday, doesn’t seem to know why. He has, he said, established an “independent inquiry”. The “independent inquiry” will run at the same time as the “judge-led inquiry” into the “culture and practices” of the BBC. The “culture and practices”, that is, that meant that BBC stars could have sex with children in BBC dressing rooms, and that other BBC stars would laugh.

There seemed, he said, to be “a significant difference between the people working on the investigation and the editor”. And if you watched Panorama, there did. There seemed, in fact, to be “a significant difference” between the people “working on the investigation”, who thought they had a “story”, and the editor, who didn’t.

When, for example, the editor of Newsnight was told that Surrey Police had dropped an investigation into Jimmy Savile as a sex offender, because he was “too old and frail”, he sent an email to one of the people working on the investigation for Newsnight, saying that this was “excellent”. They could, he said, “pull together” a plan for transmission. But when he was told that Surrey Police had dropped their case because they thought there wasn’t enough evidence, he changed his mind.

He had seen footage of Karin Ward talking about abuse, and reports from other people at her school talking about abuse, and reports from someone in a hospital talking about abuse, but still he changed his mind. “Our sources so far,” he said in an email, “are just the women.” Without the police element, he said, the “story”, which is what journalists call real things that happen to real people, wasn’t “strong enough”.

On that Panorama, on Monday night, which showed some of the footage that Newsnight decided not to show, and talked to lots of people about the “story” that wasn’t “strong enough”, a former editor of the Today programme explained: “If we’ve got a story here about an institution that has failed,” he said, “that’s a better story than the allegations alone.”

Well, he can’t complain that there isn’t a “story” now. And nor can the editor of Newsnight, who has been asked to “step aside”. If the BBC fostered a culture that allowed its stars to abuse children, in view of other staff, it’s certainly an institution that “has failed”. And if the BBC failed to report that, whether it was because an editor was being pressurised by the people above him, or whether it was because he thought the story wasn’t “strong enough”, or whether it was because, as one of Newsnight’s reporters suggested to Channel 4 news yesterday, the editor thought “it was 40 years ago… the girls were teenagers… they weren’t the worst kind of sexual offences”, it has failed in its journalism, too.

But it wasn’t, as the former editor of the Today programme also said, just the BBC that failed. “The whole British media,” he says, “fell down on the job.” And they did. Do we really think that the people who were hacking the phones of singers, and comedians, and footballers, and a girl who had been murdered, never heard a whisper about Jimmy Savile? Do we really think that the people who rushed to leak the details of a prime minister’s son’s incurable disease, never, in 40 years of pretty public sex crimes, heard a single word?

Why didn’t those hacks speak out? Was it, perhaps, for the same reason that no one interviewed on that Panorama spoke out? “Did you,” one interviewer asked a former colleague of Savile’s, “ever think about reporting it”? No, he replied. “It never even crossed my mind.” Another nearly laughed. “So I, a junior DJ,” he said, “am supposed to get up there and say my senior’s a perv?”

On the whole, people don’t. On the whole, people don’t stand up and say that their bosses are “pervs”. They don’t tell them that they think their decisions suck. When newspaper editors tell their staff that they don’t want stories covered, because, for example, someone is a friend of the proprietor, those stories tend not to appear. On the whole, people in newspapers, and hospitals, and schools, and, of course, in broadcasting organisations, do what their bosses tell them.

It’s easy to look at a mess like this, and say that we’d have stuck our necks on the line, and that we’d have run the “story”, whatever our bosses said. The truth is, we can’t know. But we can certainly look at a “story” like this, and remember that journalism is meant to be about reporting facts, and speaking truth to power. We can remember that the powerful aren’t just the faceless institutions it’s quite easy to attack, but real people who can make our lives worse. And we can remember that the weak are often weak because they’re not given a chance to speak.

“Being believed,” said Karin Ward at the end of that brilliant, brave Panorama, “might end up being a good feeling. At the moment, it’s not so good because I don’t really know how to cope with it. But one day,” she said, and the nation wanted to cheer her, “I will.”

c.patterson@independent.co.uk Twitter: @queenchristina_