Reading old news coverage with the advantage of hindsight can evoke all sorts of emotions, burnishing or rubbishing the reputations of journalists and pundits depending on how event subsequently turned out. Yet it is hard not to read old coverage of Jimmy Savile with anything other than a bitter sense of sympathy for journalists who got close but not quite there with their stories.
Take this interview with Jimmy Savile, conducted by Lyn Barber for The Independent on Sunday in 1990:
There has been a persistent rumour about him for years, and journalists have often told me as a fact: “Jimmy Savile? Of course, you know he’s into little girls.” But if they know it, why haven’t they published it? The Sun or the News of the World would hardly refuse the chance of featuring a Jimmy Savile sex scandal. It is very, very hard to prove a negative, but the fact that the tabloids have never come up with a scintilla of evidence against Jimmy Savile is as near proof as you can ever get.
I wasn’t sure whether Sir James actually knew what the particular skeleton in his closet was supposed to be, though I notice that he told The Sun five years ago that he never allowed children into his flat. “Never in a million years would I dream of letting a kid, or five kids, past my front door. Never, ever. I’d feel very uncomfortable.” Nor, he said, would he take children for a ride in his car unless they had their mum or dad with them: “You just can’t take the risk.”
Still, I was nervous when I told him: “What people say is that you like little girls.” He reacted with a flurry of funny-voice Jimmy Savile patter, which is what he does when he’s getting his bearings: “Ah now. Sure. Now then. Now then. First of all, I happen to be in the pop business, which is teenagers – that’s No 1. So when I go anywhere it’s the young ones that come round me. Now what the tabloids don’t realise is that the young girls in question don’t gather round me because of me – it’s because I know the people they love, the stars, because they know I saw Bros last week or Wet Wet Wet. Now you, watching from afar, might say ‘Look at those young girls throwing themselves at him’, whereas in actual fact it’s exactly the opposite. I am of no interest to them.”
Lyn Barber was not alone. Many people shared the rumours, some – like her – raised them. No-one, however, felt able to prove them.
That’s why in amongst all the other investigations and demands, there is one important question that should be asked: why did journalists fail to land the story? Asked not in an accusatory way, but a supportive one – for here surely is a case where the problem wasn’t inaccurate journalism or trivial journalism, but journalism sniffing around an important story and leaving it unpublished as they could not quite manage to prove it.
Much of the current discussion of journalism is about stories that were published that perhaps shouldn’t have been. We shouldn’t forget that a healthy society needs investigative journalists who do dig up public interest stories their subjects would rather keep quiet.
The Jimmy Savile case is one to learn from and an important reminder that it isn’t always a problem of too much prying by journalists. Sometimes the problem is they don’t manage to pry enough.
UPDATE: My MHP colleague Ian Kirby has now blogged his perspective from having worked as a journalist on the News of the World.