This Is My Strife: How I let Savile off the hook

NORMAN GILLER this week joins the growing number of journalists who “heard stories” about Jimmy Savile’s conduct, but never did anything about it

The disturbing Jimmy Savile sex abuse allegations have ratted skeletons in this old hack’s cupboard, and is a lesson to all we journalists to search our consciences.

Saviile: enjoyed near immunity for decades as he used his celebrity status and charity work to protect himself from investigation

Back in the 1980s – when I was a member of the This Is Your Life scriptwriting team – we debated whether to produce a second show featuring the wildly eccentric disc jockey. Eamonn Andrews had featured him in 1970, and it was being suggested at a planning meeting that new presenter Michael Aspel could surprise Savile again with the famous Big Red Book.

Chief scriptwriter Roy Bottomley, who had been a sharp news reporter on the Daily Sketch, said: “Well I’m not going to write it. The man’s notorious.” Roy then told us how former Fleet Street colleagues had been trying to find evidence to support allegations that Savile molested underage girls.

To my lasting shame, I accepted the assignment after Roy had refused to have anything to do with the show.

We ignored research that revealed Savile had often been under suspicion of abusing young girls. I will never forgive myself for putting my name to the programme as scriptwriter. I should have followed the lead of Roy Bottomley and declined the job. The £2,500 fee bought my blind eye.

When I told Savile at the after-show party that I was a sportswriter, he said in that trademark mock-boastful way of his: “You should write a programme about Jimmy Savile the sports master. I’ve ridden in more than 300 professional bike races, run 200 marathons and wrestled more than 100 opponents. I should be in the running for Sports Personality of the Year.”

I will never know whether he was joking.

Following this week’s ITV exposure by policeman-turned-investigative-reporter Mark Williams-Thomas, many of my old Fleet Street and television contemporaries have been questioning whether they could have done more to report the truth about Savile.

Among them was one of the great character editors from the old school, Brian Hitchen. Once a powerhouse at the Daily Star and Sunday Express, he revealed that he had long been aware of the allegations.

He claimed in a Daily Express article that Savile was allowed to get away with it because the libel laws made celebrities virtually untouchable.

Hitch, an outstanding roving reporter before taking on the challenge of editorship, wrote: “So why in all the years that have passed since I was first told did I never write about Savile? Two reasons.

“In those days newspapers did not write ‘nasty’ stories about celebrities unless the famous had been handsomely paid for their fairly tame revelations. The second reason is because Britain’s libel laws too often help make those like Savile untouchable.”

He said he was told many years ago that Savile was ordered off a cruise liner in Gibraltar following complaints from the parents of a 14-year-old girl. The DJ denied he had behaved inappropriately after being confronted by the ship’s captain.

“The only thing that puzzled me,” wrote Hitch, “was that it took so long after his death for his sexual victims to come out of the woodwork. I have known he abused underage girls for more than 45 years.”

I am not proud that I was one of those who knew it, and did nothing.

Lesson: As with Hillsborough, tell the truth.

WE GATHERED AT Christ Church, Esher, yesterday – scores of us – to say a final fond farewell to that exceptional sportswriter and broadcaster, Brian Woolnough, an English oak cut down all too early at the age of 63 by bowel cancer.
His family and friends gave Wooly a magnificent send-off, with a service that was warm and humorous and yet dignified, which summed up Brian’s larger-than-life personality.

There were moving and beautifully delivered tributes from his two sons, Benjamin and Jack, and daughter, Emma, a poem from grandson Joe, another read on behalf of his wife Linda, and – the show stealer – a piano solo and Adele song from grandson Max. There was not a dry eye in the house.

Paul McCarthy, the former News of the World sports editor, gave the perfect summing up at the end of a nicely balanced eulogy on behalf of the sports writers: “There will never be another Wooly.”

Rest easy, Brian. It was a pleasure and a privilege for us all to know you as a colleague and as a friend. Note for Up There: Hold the Back Page. The Guvnor has arrived.

  • Read Norman Giller’s previous columns for the SJA website by clicking here


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