How the BBC’s ‘macho culture’ allowed girls to be sexually abused

Daily Telegraph, Friday 26 February 2016

The BBC is one of this country’s best-known institutions. Most of us assumed it was properly run, which is why Dame Janet Smith’s review of the Jimmy Savile scandal is the equivalent of a hand grenade, tossed into the corridors of the corporation to devastating effect. Dame Janet doesn’t claim that senior management knew about Savile’s crimes but she has identified a ‘macho culture’ which allowed him to prey on teenage (and younger) children for almost half a century.

Ironically, the review has found that it was especially pronounced in Light Entertainment and at Radio 1, which was supposed to be the corporation’s flagship youth station. Dame Janet paints a picture of the BBC struggling to adapt to a brash youth culture and completely failing to reflect the modern world: the corporation had very few women in management roles and female staff found it hard to report sexual harassment.

In a staggeringly deferential and masculine culture, male DJs and presenters were treated with ‘kid gloves’ and regarded as ‘untouchable’. When a junior female employee at Television Centre summoned up the courage to complain to her supervisor that she’d been assaulted by Savile, she was told ‘Keep your mouth shut, he is a VIP’.

These revelations destroy the lame old excuse that a gender imbalance in the workplace does no real harm. It’s not as though male-dominated offices and factories were unusual in the 1970s and 80s, and in that sense at least the BBC was far from unique; male bosses were so much the rule that the occasional woman in a senior position was regarded, at best, as a novelty.

Women in more junior positions were made to feel like outsiders, expected to flirt with colleagues or prove that we were ‘one of the lads’ by putting up with so-called ‘banter’. In one of the first newspaper offices I worked in, the news editor asked me to make tea while I was in the middle of writing a story. When I suggested a tea rota, all the men turned up the following day with a thermos flask.

Politics was as male-dominated as the BBC. It’s often forgotten that Margaret Thatcher was one of only eight women on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons when she became prime minister in 1979. Female MPs who arrived in Parliament after an election were astonished to discover that the Palace of Westminster had a shooting range but no childcare facilities.

That’s because the people who hold senior positions in organisations shape them, often unconsciously, in their own image. At the BBC, neither sexual harassment nor child protection was taken seriously because the men in charge didn’t regard other men, particularly if they were household names, as a potential risk. In one of the most damning phrases in her review, Dame Janet identifies an ‘atmosphere of fear’ which discouraged staff from complaining or raising concerns.

Even if they witnessed an assault, junior female staff would have known the consequences of making a complaint about someone as famous as Savile or the presenter Stuart Hall. We now know that the two men assaulted a total of 93 victims at the BBC.

What the Smith review describes is an extreme version of a lads’ culture in the very sections of the BBC that were designed to appeal to teenagers. If women who worked for the corporation felt unable to complain, girls who made up the studio audience for popular programmes stood no chance at all of being taken seriously.

Dame Janet records an occasion when two teenage girls complained that they had been assaulted by Savile on Top of the Pops, only to have their complaints ‘brushed aside’ and never passed on to management. ‘One girl was told to move out of the way of the camera and the other was ejected from the building and left on the street’, says the review.

It’s inevitable that the BBC should go through a period of heart-searching after such appalling failures. Senior executives may be tempted to believe that the corporation’s gender problem is in the past but it has faced persistent allegations of discrimination against older women in recent years, not least from the former Countryfile presenter Miriam O’Reilly, who won an ageism case against the BBC. After the Smith review was published, O’Reilly tweeted that BBC staff were ‘still afraid to speak up’ and feared the ‘personal consequences’ of making complaints.

Dame Janet believes that Savile and Hall might have been exposed earlier had it not been for ‘cultural factors’ at the BBC. It’s tempting to think all that’s in the past and it’s certainly true that most organisations, including the BBC, have many more women in senior positions these days. But I don’t think we can assume that our leading companies and institutions are entirely free of the toxic assumptions that persisted in the workplace for decades.






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