Thursday, 28 March 2013

Double confession of dealings with Jimmy Savile

IT has become fashionable among journalists to recount their encounters with Jimmy Savile, the former DJ whose alleged sexual misbehaviour has dominated the media over recent months. I am not sure whether this represents some public display of guilt that he was allowed to get away with it with apparent impunity for so long. But whatever the motives here are my two pennyworth. It was after all my dad who put Jimmy Savile on the road to stardom. For many years this would be said with a degree of moderate pride. Not unreserved pride, as Savile was always seen as a bit of a creepy character. Over the decades there were those who thought his demeanour was obnoxious. For some, but not all, this odiousness was trumped by the herculean feats he performed for charity. Surely no-one who was evil would give so much time to supporting paraplegics in Stoke Mandeville or giving up free time to be a porter at Leeds hospitals? Now there is an explanation for his deeds that transcends creepy. But no one I ever met suspected that his motive may have been sexual predation. Certainly when my father was deputy programme controller of the infant TV station Tyne Tees Television at the very start of the 1960s, he could not have suspected. Peter Glover saw it as part of his mission to bring on other young directors. One was Malcolm Morris, who he put in charge of the project called Young at Heart aimed at the teenage market. He went on to direct the iconic This is Your Life for many years. His own autobiography This Was My Life recalls how my dad discovered Jimmy Savile. Yorkshireman, Savile was then plying his trade in the large dance halls of Glasgow. My dad brought him to Newcastle to launch his TV career. I met him at the studio and he had dyed his hair tartan and developed the outrageous cigar-smoking persona which came to dominate the English pop scene in its halcyon days. We were not left alone so I was under no threat, even though he demonstrated his larger than life character. I was, however, abused by Savile 20 years later. During my first freelance journalism career in the early 1980s I was getting plenty of shift-work on the Nationals, with the Daily Star giving me at least two evenings a week. It was a strange set up with the head office in those days in Manchester. The London office was in the back of a corridor in the Daily Express offices in Fleet Street. There was a four-man news desk who not only decided the agenda, they also told reporters exactly what they wanted out of a story, even before the facts were gathered. The introduction was provided in advance of the stories being researched. It was the reporter’s job to make the facts fit the imagined headline. It was coming up to Christmas 1983 when the assistant News Editor, Ken Bennett, had one of those ideas the popular nationals love. There was a severely disabled girl from the Home Counties who was housebound and a freelance had filed a story saying she had never had a Christmas card from outside the family, sad enough you might think. But Ken had spotted a another story claiming that Savile, by then one of the top Disc Jockeys and TV presenters in Britain, had never sent a Christmas Card. So one awful snowy night I was dispatched to a shop to buy a card and catch a bus to Shepherd’s Bush where the BBC was recording Jim’ll Fix It, a programme where Jimmy Savile made wishes come true for children. That seems an awful thought now. My task was to get him to sign the card and the Daily Star would send it to the poor girl in Surrey. Well easier said than done. I had to blag my way into the BBC and then wait for a break in recording, so I could button-hole Mr Savile. He kept me waiting in the corridor for about an hour and then, having finally let me in to his private dressing room, took the Mickey mercilessly at my choice of card. I thought he was going to refuse to sign it. I was tempted to remind him that it was my father that put him on the road to stardom, but in the end I decided that was unprofessional and persuaded him to sign the thing anyway, mainly by refusing to leave until he had. Then it was back to the Daily Star to report my triumph and file the story in time for deadline. Of course this whole episode took on a new perspective when Savile’s alleged predatory paedophilia was highlighted thirty years later. What had he been doing for the hour he kept me waiting outside his dressing room? Certainly it seems his aggressive mocking of me was typically symptomatic of his general bullying of journalists. Even worse, had I tempted him to get in touch with another poor potential victim by sending the Christmas card? I will never know the answers. Until the scandal which rocked the BBC in 2012, my experience of being abused by Savile was just a light-hearted human interest story. But it did give an interesting insight into the mind games he is said by many to play with journalists, police officers and others. These two episodes are selected extracts from my nearly-completed autobiography “Flirting with Fame”, as yet not available from any bookshops anywhere at all.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

License to kill free speech

IT is sad but now inevitable that Britain is destined to become one of the most repressed and secretive countries in the world. It is already plummeting down the United Nations chart of nations where freedom of the Press is respected. By the time the Government has finished implementing its version of the Leveson report, complete with licensed media, and the police have finished Operations Elveden and Weeting, then we will truly be languishing in the lower regions of the lowest division. It comes as no comfort to me that I have watched this state of affairs unfold over the decades I have been a working journalist. Too much of my time and energy has been wasted trying to prevent the inexorable progress of the press shacklers. There was a time when publicity was courted by politicians, police and any organisation on the side of good. There was a conspiracy of consensus between those who valued the glue that held society together. If people transgressed what was commonly seen as decent behaviour they could expect censor and exposure in the media. Slowly over the years, the cult of the individual has overturned this arrangement. Human rights legislation, the data protection act and the obsession by a House of Commons dominated by lawyers to introduce laws which line their profession’s pockets have led to current proposal that any publication which doesn’t sign up to the Government’s license risks being priced out of existence. There are so many ironies in this that it is hard to know where to start, or finish. Let’s stick to three. One, when I directly handled complaints at a major city daily newspaper, 95% of them were about statements made in court. Readers would berate the newspaper for reporting, accurately, what had been said by lawyers in mitigation for their clients. The most vociferous MP in his attacks on the media, Clive Soley, was of course a lawyer. So lying lawyers fed a lawyer’s campaign to vilify the media. Two, an obsession with privacy, stoked by the famous and influential, has come hand-in-glove with the explosion of social media, which in the words of the founder of Facebook, are leading to a world in which there is no such thing as privacy. Three, in a world in which everyone can be a publisher, through the likes of Facebook or Twitter, Lord Leveson’s report totally ignores the new media. So we are left with laws drafted and aimed specifically at the established print media and the journalists who work for them. For more than 300 years journalists in this country have had to follow laws and conventions that apply to the whole population. Now we enter a brave new world when this is no longer true. There are already a couple of dozen laws, civil and criminal, that can be used to prevent publication, including defamation, contempt, prejudice, data protection, secrets acts and child protection. Many of these are right and proper in a civilised society. Knowledge of them is essential for professional journalists and comprises most of their training needs. What the Government plans to do now is penalise those who actually understand restrictions of free speech, and give unfair advantage to the bloggers and other rabble-rousers who haven’t got a clue. Any perusal of social media would expose how dangerous this is, with racist, bigoted, prejudicial and downright offensive remarks on every site. None of the above is supposed to excuse the phone-hacking or bribery of police officers and others for information, if that is what happened. This is criminal behaviour, for which there are perfectly good laws which could have been applied to bring the perpetrators to book. To use a few cases where the police and politicians were too weak or corrupt to intervene to justify laws aimed specifically at muzzling or curtailing the Press is both bizarre and deeply troubling to anyone who believes in freedom of expression.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Why officialdom can sometimes be so wrong

I called in today to see farmer Edward Steele who has been fighting officialdom for years. He is the third generation to have leasehold of a 30-acre farm hidden from view in the folds of rural land between Burneside and Kendal, and nestling up to the banks of the River Sprint, a tributary of the Kent. It is more than 20 years since he decided the land could not support him and his family so started to put static caravans on the site as holiday lets. Instead he found that there was a huge demand from families wanting a rustic life-style but at a cost that could be afforded in the highly priced property markets of the Lake District. As demand grew, he put up more and more lodges and barn structures, attracting alternative life-style tenants. Some carried out small businesses in other barns. Mr Steele charged them roughly half of the commercial rents in nearby Kendal town. In addition he provided free wood-burners and fuel. Trees and hedges grew around these “eco-lodges” so that the former agricultural land became wooded glades where wild-life flourished. Children played in a country idyll, safely. Some were educated at home by their new age parents. Many of the tenants had histories of mental illness, as does Mr Steele, but the lifestyle meant they were able to support each other and stay out of the clutches of the health system. His landlords, a Catholic charity, took a proportion of the rental income and the local council, South Lakeland District Council, took rates and emptied the bins. So everyone was happy. But there was blight on their horizon. Mr Steele had acquired, by default, planning permission for four of the lodges, but not the rest. And the land was clearly allocated for farming on the district plan. So officialdom’s wheels ground slowly into action. Mr Steele had to apply for planning permission, which was refused. He appealed and lost again. He was told to restore the land for agriculture. That meant evicting the tenants, which he refused to do, as well as flattening hedgerows, trees and the lodges. He was prosecuted once and won on a technicality as the council charged him as the owner. So they started again by taking him to civil court for breach of the planning inspector’s ruling. This time a judge agreed the council’s was right in law, which is all that matters in the courts. He ordered Mr Steele to do as he had been told or face jail. The council has now gone to enormous expense of re-housing the tenants in urban properties they don’t want to be in. There will be an on-going cost to ratepayers from housing benefit. No doubt the health service will face future costs of dealing with mental illness. Goodness knows how much the court hearings and council officer time cost the public purse. A depressed Mr Steele spends every day at the controls of a massive digger destroying the wild-life haven he has spent two decades encouraging, uprooting trees and hedgerows and clearing the debris. All but the four original lodges are emptied and flattened. The whole area now looks like a World War One battle scene, and no, that is not hyperbole. In private moments the SLDC councilors say they have to comply with the law. Besides they don’t want shanty towns springing up all over the fringes of the Lake District. “We have to draw the line somewhere,” said one senior councillor. Mr Steele fears he will be evicted by the charity from the farmhouse his grandfather built 100 years ago and without the income from lodges he will be declared bankrupt, as the farm is even less viable than it was when he started on this journey. Why do I feel that this is a crying shame and proof that sometimes the law can be an ass?