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Sins of the Church and the BBC


Jimmy Savile

The Jimmy Savile scandal in Britain shows the Catholic Church is not alone among trusted public institutions that have been undermined by their own culture of silence and denial.

The late Jimmy Savile was the legendary BBC entertainer whose sexual abuse of more than 300 young women was recently revealed amid accusations that the BBC suppressed its own reporting of the abuse because it feared tarnishing its brand.

Colm O'Gorman is an Irish activist who founded the clergy sex abuse victim support group One in Four. He wrote in The Tablet at the weekend of the hypocrisy of the BBC and his own involvement in the public broadcaster's investigation and reporting of abuse crimes in the Church.  

When [a powerful institution] either discovers serious wrongdoing within its own ranks, or indeed is itself guilty of wrongdoing, it often acts to cover up such corruption in an effort to protect its reputation and its authority.

He goes on to make the point that silence is the culprit; 'the silence of those who shared rumour and gossip but who failed to act to protect desperately vulnerable children and young people'.

Rumour and gossip lack credibility. They serve the damaging silence because they ensure the incriminating information is cloaked with uncertainty. They neutralise its potential to damage the institution but also to bring justice to the individuals who have been harmed. 

Another indication of cover up is managers doing everything that is required but not the one thing necessary. This might have been the case after then BBC head Mark Thompson was told at last year's Christmas party that BBC Newsnight's Savile investigation had been terminated. He gave this account to the New York Times:

I talked to senior management in BBC News and reported the conversation ... There is nothing to suggest that I acted inappropriately in the handling of this matter. I did not impede or stop the Newsnight investigation, nor have I done anything else that could be construed as untoward or unreasonable.

The 'one thing necessary' would have been to blow the whistle if there was a reasonable possibility that what was being said in hushed tones was true.

Whistleblowers are respected individuals willing to sacrifice their own professional future in order to help victims, who do not themselves have a credible voice. 

Thompson's professional future is set to lie at The New York Times Company, where he expects to take up the position of CEO two weeks from today. But in an interesting twist to the story, the cautious approach that would have pleased the governors of the BBC could prove his undoing at the New York Times.

That is if the paper's public editor Margaret Sullivan had her way. Sullivan, seemingly an afficianado of bold journalism, wrote in her blog last Tuesday that: 'His integrity and decision-making are bound to affect The Times and its journalism — profoundly. It's worth considering now whether he is the right person for the job, given this turn of events.'

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: Michael Mullins, Jimmy Savile, BBC, Catholic Church, Colm O'Gorman, Mark Thompson



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Existing comments

While there are some helpful points made in this article, the conclusions are absurd. Should the BBC not have reported on the situation of the Irish Church in case the BBC had something to hide? Do you have to be pure before you do what you are mandated to do, report on what is newsworthy? If the BBC tried to do what the Irish (and Australian and other) churches did and tried to cover up and obfuscate, there would be some basis for your criticism; so far as I know, they did not

PHILIP NEWMAN | 29 October 2012  

For Philip Newman If the BBC tried to do what the Irish (and Australian and other) churches did and tried to cover up and obfuscate, there would be some basis for your criticism; so far as i know, they did not. How much do you know? For evil to succeed, all that is needed if for good people to do nothing."

Robert Liddy | 29 October 2012  

Libby Purves had an excellent article, originally in The Times, republished in today's Australian. Her contention was that the the BBC management "system" is "an upward spiralling echo chamber of infinite emptiness" which "is designed to ensure nobody senior ever fails". Those at the top have little or no contact with those at the coalface, so they have no idea what is going wrong, until it is too late, when they can claim ignorance and therefore deny culpability. There have, sadly, been parallels with this in many institutions, not just the Catholic Church.

Edward F | 29 October 2012  

I thought the main conclusion that Michael Mullins drew was that the BBC was selective in deciding what abusers (of any kind) to expose. In Savile's case where one of the BBC's own was involved, the same tactics as used by the catholic church were used by the BBC to protect its brand - silence or turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to the facts. I remember reading about a head of a Western Intelligence Service in the 1980s who when asked about whistleblowers replied: "If they don't agree with what the organisation is doing, they can always leave. And in accordance with their oath of secrecy keep their misgivings to themselves. Or be prepared to be prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act." "they can always leave" What sort of option is that?

Uncle Pat | 29 October 2012  

Jimmy Glitter didn't pledge his life and soul to the BBC, he was merely an employee. When clergy do the abusing - that's turning Christ's spouse into a monster.

AURELIUS | 29 October 2012  

The Catholic Church, however, makes claims to a truth to teaching and a responsibility to its members, particularly children. I suggest that it therefore has the greater responsibility in the extreme breach of trust betrayed by an unacceptable number of its clergy and brothers. It is more than time to admit that responsibility and to officially readdress its culture.

Margaret Stack | 29 October 2012  

one would have to wonder at the judgement of those who decided it was a good idea to give him a papal knighthood. I curious that those who are seeking to take a way his knighthood posthumously are told it can't be done. And anyway it doesn't matter because it dies with him. Is that the same for priesthood?

john | 31 October 2012  

It's an interesting reflection on the similar ways in which large organizations work to protect themselves. The BBC made sure they didn't lose a popular star revenue-raiser in disgraceful circumstances. Jimmy Savile probably knew where a lot of BBC bodies were buried, too - certain people might have judged it too dangerous to mess with him. Church leaders acted to protect their own interests (authority, reputation) also. Human organizations aren't good at acting primarily to protect the most vulnerable. This all shows the humanity of church leaders, and not in a good way.

Joan Seymour | 11 November 2012  

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