Smith Review: Jimmy Savile investigation flags Honours Committee's “indulgent attitudes towards celebrity” despite official warnings

793-page investigation into response to Savile's serial offending cites warnings from former cabinet secretary Lord Butler over plans to award TV and radio star a knighthood

By Jim Dunton

26 Feb 2016

The author of a landmark lessons-to-be learned report on the BBC’s handling of Jimmy Savile’s decades of abuse has questioned the Honour's Committee's preparedness to overlook concerns from senior officials about the celebrity’s behaviour before handing him a knighthood.

Dame Janet Smith’s 793-page investigation attempts to document all known incidents of inappropriate behaviour on the part of the DJ and TV star during more than 40 years at the corporation. 

She concludes that Savile’s immediate bosses missed chances to stop his offending, but says senior management were unaware of complaints about the presenter. Nevertheless, Dame Janet criticises top managers for failing to be more concerned about his reputation and for not recognising he was unsuitable for the work he was doing for the BBC.

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Elsewhere in the report, Dame Janet references senior civil servants’ discussions with then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher over her keenness to award Savile a knighthood in recognition of his charity work on behalf of Stoke Mandevile Hospital. 

She observes that an ultimate willingness to overlook concerns about his alleged behaviour were symptomatic of prevalent attitudes to celebrities at the time.

Savile died in 2011 at the age of 84. Freedom of Information requests lodged two years later revealed that Thatcher recommended him for a knighthood on several occasions in the 1980s, but was repeatedly rebuffed by the Honours Committee, made up of senior civil servants and independent members. 

The report cited “lurid” tabloid revelations about the star’s promiscuous sex life as a significant factor in refusing the requests.

It said cabinet secretary from 1979-1987 Sir Robert Armstrong and his successor Sir Robin Butler had both supported successive rejections of knighthood bids for Savile. 

The report quotes a 1988 rejection note from Sir Robin saying: “My committee and I still fear that his manner of life – on his own confession – has been such that a high award for him would be an unhelpful signal when we are still having to grapple with an AIDS problem which threatens to intensify; and that a knighthood for him would not benefit the honours system in the eyes of the public.”

Savile was finally awarded a knighthood in 1990, and while the Honours Committee’s reasoning is undocumented in her report, Dame Janet describes the decision as telling.

“To my mind, it illuminates the thinking of the time,” she says. “Members of the Honours Committee were plainly of the view that Savile’s self-confessed way of life ruled him out of consideration for some time, although not permanently.

“It is interesting that the prime minister, apparently aware of the nature of Savile’s confessions, thought that it was appropriate that he should be honoured, regardless of those revelations. 

“If the prime minister and members of the Honours Committee did not think that Savile’s promiscuous lifestyle put him beyond the pale, it tells us a great deal about the indulgent attitudes towards celebrity of that time. I do not think that it means that people held similarly indulgent attitudes towards people in other walks of life.”

Dame Janet’s report identified 72 victims of Savile who could be connected with the BBC, eight of whom her report said were raped. 

A 2013 report by the Metropolitan Police and child-protection charity NSPCC said 450 allegations of abuse against Savile had been made following his death, 214 of which had been formally recorded as criminal offences. 

The Met said 73% of those identified as victims of Savile had been under the age of 18.

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