A Note on “Savile Smears”

From Ayesha Hazarika in the Independent:

At the start of the week, we witnessed a new low for British politics. When the Prime Minister was meant to be making a sombre apology for Downing Street parties and the failure of leadership at No 10 identified in Sue Gray’s report, he suddenly launched an audacious, deranged, and wicked attack on [Keir] Starmer by saying he was responsible for the failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile.

We know this is untrue. It’s all on the record in a report. We know how low it is to weaponise sexual abuse especially for the victims of Savile. We all know this is the man who accused a child sex abuse inquiry of spaffing money up the wall. We know all that. But let’s be clear – at the heart of this was a tactic no more sophisticated than yelling “you nonce” at Starmer and hoping some of it would stick because in an era of unhinged conspiracy theories and social media, by the time the truth has got its boots on, the paedo meme is halfway round the world.

Johnson’s strategy is rumoured to have been suggested to him by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was shown smirking and pointing during the jibe and whose subsequent defence of it in Parliament was amplified online by Paul Staines. Johnson’s line of attack was also endorsed by Nadine Dorries MP in a Channel 4 interview, in which she asserted that “the Prime Minister tells the truth” while denying having any knowledge of the specifics (in contrast to when in May 2020 she promoted a deceptively edited clip uploaded by a far-right Twitter account in which Starmer appeared to justify failing to prosecute grooming gang cases).

Starmer was the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2009, which was when Jimmy Savile was interviewed by police under caution in relation to allegations relating to the Duncroft Approved School in Surrey. A file was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service, which judged that there was insufficient evidence to proceed. In 2013 a review by Alison Levitt QC found that more could have been done by police and prosecutors to build a case and to pursue other allegations – Starmer accepted this finding and made an apology on behalf of the CPS.

Rees-Mogg correctly regards this as analogous to ministerial responsibility, in which a minster may apologise for mistakes that occur within their department even though they may have had nothing to do with them personally. Where he is mendacious is in the suggestion that this in turn is comparable to Boris Johnson’s responsibility for events that took place inside his own home, in at least some of which Johnson is personally implicated. Further, it is reasonable to suppose that Rees-Mogg is rationalising after Johnson’s comments were taken to mean that Starmer was indeed personally responsible, and that that this was both more serious and more currently relevant than Johnson’s own conduct. (1)

It is certainly appropriate to be revolted by Johnson’s deployment of Jimmy Savile in such a self-serving way, and to be irritated by the implied insult to our intelligence. Coming from the prime minister, it is also indeed a “new low”. However, if journalists are suddenly concerned about a “Savile smear” it seems to me that  a more thorough audit of Savile claims would be welcome. Stories alleging that Savile was involved in Satanic Ritual Abuse or a paedophile ring that also included Edward Heath find their origins not with “social media” but in sensationalising newspaper reports. More generally, the journalist David Rose wrote in 2016:

Some of the discrepancies I was able to expose in articles about the Savile case in the autumn of 2014 had been canvassed in the blogosphere for months, by Susanne Cameron-Blackie [Anna Raccoon] and others. But although one other national newspaper journalist did become interested, he backed off, having told at least two of his sources that to publish material casting doubt on the prevailing narrative would be ‘career suicide’.

Meanwhile, the High Court had established a compensation scheme, a means of paying damages to ‘victims’ from what was left of Savile’s estate, administered by his executors, the NatWest bank. It allowed for only the most cursory scrutiny of allegations’ veracity. The assumption underlying it was, self-evidently, that most of them must be true.

This lack of due diligence was most evident in the case of Carl Beech, whose first foray into hoaxing the media and police involved a false claim about Savile. There is also reason to be concerned about the subsequent trajectories of some of those involved in the 2012 Exposure documentary on Savile, which focused in particular on the Duncroft claims. Mark Williams-Thomas was later involved in promoting false allegations against Cliff Richard, and I am sure that if the singer were not still alive and able to push back we would have seen a similar documentary about him. Meirion Jones, who produced a follow-up BBC documentary called Jimmy Savile – What the BBC Knew, later went on to make the extraordinary claim that the BBC’s critical investigation into Operation Midland had been announced with the purpose of distracting attention from the sentencing of Bishop Peter Ball. There’s a direct line from that kind of thing to mobs chanting “paedo-protectors” outside Broadcasting House (a line that may be overlooked with greater interest in QAnon imports).

UPDATE: A report in the Sunday Times states that

The origin of the claim against Starmer is believed to be a 2018 article on the right-wing political website, Guido Fawkes, concerning his time as DPP (2008-13). According to research by the campaign group Hope Not Hate, searches for “Starmer” and “Savile” peaked in April 2020 when the far-right fake news site Politicalite published a piece with the headline, “New leader new danger: Keir Starmer ‘helped paedophile Jimmy Saville [sic] evade justice’”.

Lia Nici, the Conservative MP for Great Grimsby, claimed on BBC5 Live last week that when Starmer visited her seat last month, constituents asked on social media why he was coming in light of Savile. “This was absolutely, utterly the number one issue for local people,” she said. “[They said]: ‘He did this with the CPS. He should be ashamed.’”

…At an anti-lockdown rally near Buckingham Palace in the summer of 2020, [BBC reporter Marianna] Spring spoke to a group of women who were discussing fake “case studies” of child abuse victims. “One of the women specifically mentioned Starmer to me and how he had protected Savile,” Spring says. “I asked where she’d seen that, and she said: ‘It’s all over my Facebook group; it’s everywhere.’”

The article links the Starmer/Savile smear with with QAnon, anti-vaccine misinformation and political falsehoods – but fails to engage with the Savile conspiricism and “VIP abuse” sensationalism of the mainstream media since 2012.


1. Ironically, Starmer has also been accused of over-zealousness as head of the DPP, and criticised for introducing the “believe the accuser” principle that led to the Operation Midland fiasco in 2014 (after he had moved on) and other excesses. In 2020 Paul Gambaccini stated that he might “stand against Sir Keir Starmer at the next general election in protest at the Labour leadership hopeful’s handling of Operation Yewtree”, and Harvey Proctor’s experiences as an Operation Midland suspect form the basis for a chapter in Michael Ashcroft’s recent biography of Starmer, Red Knight.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.