The editor of spiked, Brendan O’Neill, had commended an article which I had written over the May Bank Holiday in 2013, about Savile-mania in the UK.
Now, an article such as the one I wrote on this occasion doesn’t get tossed off in the space of an hour or so. I find it helps if one has been mulling over a topic for a period of weeks or even months beforehand. The unconscious mind starts to structure one’s thoughts, and sometimes – as writers find to their joy – articles just write themselves.
Brendan was enthusiastic: “I love your article. It’s very, very strong”, he replied, after I enquired if he had received it. (Writers always want to know if their work is appreciated by the editors who commission them). And he continued: “I find Operation Yewtree really scary”.
Neither of us had any inkling as to what would happen next.
A senior member of my chambers tweeted a link to the published article with the words: “Provocative article by Barbara Hewson. I don’t agree btw”.
Within hours, my chambers had caved to the moral blackmail of a pushy and self-important press officer for the NSPCC, one of the organisations which I had criticised for its role in Operation Yewtree.
Eerily, he was named Matthew Hopkinson! You couldn’t make this up.
He threatened me and my chambers that, unless I removed or re-worded my article, the NSPCC would “take this to news desks”. It was a brazen attempt at censorship. “Have you not heard of Article 10?”, I enquired of Hopkinson, incredulous that anyone would even contemplate censoring an article commissioned for external publication.
Now the underlying Savile scandal really was a witch-hunt, as Appendix 12 to the Pollard Report makes clear. It’s an extraordinary story. Within hours of the news of Savile’s death breaking, Meirion Jones, described as the jewel in the crown of the BBC’s cadre of investigative reporters, had e-mailed his bosses with a pitch: “Jimmy Saville [sic] – paedophile”. Not even a questionmark. From the get-go, Jones’ mind was evidently made up.
There was a backstory. As other commentators have noted, Jones’ aunt ran the approved school named Duncroft in Surrey which became the fons et origo of the Savile scandal. From the e-mail, it seemed that Jones had little time for his aunt or the school.
Now this raised an obvious ethical problem. How could any investigative reporter, no matter how able, investigate an institution run by a relative to whom he is evidently ill-disposed? The BBC never really grasped this nettle.
A former inmate of Duncroft, now deceased, told me of her hypothesis that this all came about because of a family row over a will. It seems that Ms Jones’ elderly mother lived with her at the school until her death. She left all her money to Ms Jones, and nothing to Meirion’s dad (Ms Jones’ brother). I was told that Meirion’s mother later met Ms Jones at a family do, and told her: “You’ll be sorry”.
I do not know if this tale is accurate or not. But it is intriguing. After all, the seventeenth-century Salem witch trials erupted as a consequence of disputes between neighbours over land.
The original investigation into Savile, then, was never truly independent, but coloured by the pre-conceptions of its instigator. And once people were told that Savile “paedophile” was under investigation, that inevitably coloured their response. How could it not?
Where the real truth lies will ultimately be a matter for historians. I should add that I was not brought up in the UK, and have no stake in or allegiance to the BBC.
All I can do is to reiterate that, as others have noted, “hypothesis-based investigations can dig a deep grave for the innocent.”