AAnyone who’s watched Netflix’s new film Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story will wonder how Savile got away with abusing children for decades – and why he wasn’t exposed sooner. As someone who has spent years trying to expose it myself, I believe there are four main reasons.
First, the institutions turned a blind eye because Savile was worth more to them than the victims. Second, he forged ties with the most powerful people in the country – Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles – who gave him protection. Third, it targeted vulnerable victims whose testimony would not hold up in court.
But the final – and least discussed – reason is how our murky defamation laws protect bad guys.
Since first high-profile libel casewhen history’s most famous pirate, Captain Morgan, won £200 in damages (£40,000 today) in the 17th century for being accused of being a cruel buccaneer, our libel laws protected evildoers.
I can reveal that in 2008 the Sun was about to expose Savile. They had affidavits from women who had been abused by him as children at the infamous Haut de la Garenne children’s home, which was at the center of the Jersey child abuse scandal. Reporters and editors were confident in their testimonies. Then came the time when the story had to go through the in-house lawyers.
We imagine the conversations. Who are our witnesses who will testify if Savile sues us for defamation? They were children at the time – can we trust their memories? Some of them might have a criminal record or be involved in drugs. Remember, Savile deliberately targeted the institutions where his victims might not be believed in court. They would face the best QC money could buy, representing a man who could potentially call Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, heads of charities, the head of the BBC and the Pope as character witnesses.
The lawyers’ best guess was that a libel claim could cost a million pounds and the Sun would be the loser for good. The story was canned and reporters and story editors were furious. But it wasn’t the first or last time Savile got away with it because of our defamation laws, which rewarded his deliberate targeting of vulnerable victims.
Unofficially, journalists told me of multiple attempts to expose Savile from the 1960s that failed because newspapers could not afford the legal risks involved. Brian Hitchen, who was editor of the Daily Star and the Sunday Express in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he knew Savile was a pedophile at the time, but thought the combination of his fame and our libel laws would make it impossible to publish the story.
In 1994 the Sunday Mirror attempted to publicize Savile’s story. The editor, Paul Connew, was convinced but he knew Savile would win if he comes to court. Perhaps part of the calculation was that Savile would be represented by the formidable QC George Carman.
In the end, the Sun in 2008 published a photo of Savile at Haut de la Garenne with a group of young children. ‘Sir Jimmy had no idea of the horrors at the orphanage,’ the copy read, but it was obvious to me at the time what the Sun wanted to reveal but could not publish.
The photo became part of our evidence dossier at Newsnight in 2011 when journalist Liz MacKean, researcher Hannah Livingston and I began gathering evidence that Savile had abused children, not just at Duncroft (the school that my aunt ran) but in every institution. he was associated, from Stoke Mandeville to the BBC, and Broadmoor to Haut de la Garenne.
Even the soft version of the story and the follow-ups that were published by the Sun prompted Savile’s lawyers to write to the publication. “We are acting for Sir James Savile and have been consulted on the above items,” the letter read. “As your publication will know, our client has campaigned tirelessly for underprivileged and sick children. His charity work over many years has raised huge sums which have benefited many projects and hospitals… Linking our client to events at home has caused untold embarrassment and upset.
As always, Savile trumpeted his chivalry, and therefore his powerful connections, and hid behind his charitable fundraising and work with children.
His attorneys have asked The Sun to remove the articles, pay compensation for “damage to his feelings and reputation” and, of course, his legal costs. Above all, all this must remain confidential. To their credit, at least one Sun reporter sued Savile, but without success.
If the media were in the same position now, with a prolific offender with powerful friends, ample resources, and vulnerable victims, I suspect the legal advice would be the same: don’t publish. Every investigative reporter can tell you about the getaways – the outright bad guys who got away because the legal risks were too high.
But there is a chance to reset this. Our defamation laws have come under renewed scrutiny after a succession of cases brought by oligarchs and big business trying to curb journalistic reporting. Russian energy company Rosneft and billionaires Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman sued Catherine Belton for defamation over her book Putin’s People, resulting in £1.5m legal costs for its publishers (the claim was eventually settled, with several changes made to the book). Last month, the High Court dismissed a longstanding claim by controversial Kazakh mining company ENRC against the Financial Times and its journalist Tom Burgis.
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government is about to take over our libel courts. Justice Secretary Dominic Raab is currently consulting on changes to the Libel Act 2013 to make it harder for powerful individuals and organizations to use the courts to harass journalists and stop them saying the truth about their wrongdoings. The government is considering a number of measures to discourage so-called strategic litigation against public participation lawsuits, or Slapps.
Law firms play an important role in protecting criminals in Britain. As MP Bob Seely said in the Commons: “The oligarchs, Putin’s henchmen, team up with amoral lawyers. Defamation scholars sometimes make the argument that it’s like the right to counsel in a criminal trial – that no matter how serious the allegations, the individual must be defended – but there is no basis legal for it.
At best, they seem indifferent to whether the allegations are true. After Connew had to withdraw the child molestation allegations against Savile, he spoke to Carman, who told him, “I suspect you’re right.” Carman had previously succeeded in destroy a child abuse criminal case against another celebrity who later had to admit he was guilty.
One of the ideas is to strengthen the defense of the public interest in item 4 of the act – this is crucial. It’s hard to think of anything that is more in the public interest than exposing an individual who is a prolific child molester. We need to ensure that any changes to the law help journalists expose wrongdoing, whether by oligarchs or prolific pedophiles, or other criminals.
In the Netflix documentary, Andrew Neil says: “As a profession, as journalists, we have let the country down. We should have had this guy. It’s fair that we blame ourselves – but the UK’s restrictive libel litigation is a key part of that failure.
Savile would have been exposed decades earlier – dozens would not have been raped, hundreds would not have been assaulted – if not for our senseless libel laws.
At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, I receive dozens of letters from law firms defending the indefensible, making false claims, and threatening legal action. Recently, one of the largest companies sent a letter to a newspaper that was co-publishing an article with us. The letter was wrong about what happened in court – even though it was in the public domain. It arrived on schedule and the newspaper had no time to reflect and removed the key allegation from the story.
The House of Lords is pressuring the Solicitors Regulation Authority to crack down on law firms representing the oligarchs. We have to go further than that. A culture has developed in which it is normal for some lawyers engaged in “reputation management” to knowingly lie on behalf of their clients in an effort to protect them from damaging revelations by journalists. This should not be acceptable to the regulator.
Thus, Savile’s British horror story should fuel the discussion launched by Slapps about rebalancing the law in favor of public interest journalism – rather than allowing powerful individuals and corporations to escape scrutiny. justice.