The Sun attempted to expose Jimmy Savile as a paedophile while he was still alive – only to have to back down because of Britain’s tough libel laws, according to one of the journalists who investigated the case.
Meirion Jones said the tabloid was ready to publish the story in 2008, which could have brought the entertainer to justice while he was still alive. The newspaper’s reporters had signed affidavits from women who had been abused as children by Savile at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey.
In an article for the Guardian, Jones said the Sun’s journalists and editors were confident in the evidence that Savile had abused individuals on the island. However, the tabloid’s lawyers were worried they would lose any subsequent libel case and be left with a £1m bill – partly because the victims might not be believed in court.
Jones said the newspaper knew Savile was highly litigious and if they published a story they “would be facing the best QCs money could buy, representing a man who could potentially call Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher, the heads of charities, the head of the BBC and the pope as character witnesses”.
The journalist, who features in a recent Netflix documentary about Savile, said: “The best guess of the lawyers was that a libel action could cost a million pounds and the Sun would definitely lose. The story was canned and the journalists and editors were furious. But this wasn’t the first or last time that Savile escaped because of our libel laws, which rewarded his deliberate targeting of vulnerable victims.”
Instead, the Sun published a carefully worded article about child abuse at the Jersey care home, along with a picture of Savile on the premises – while repeatedly emphasising that the BBC presenter had no knowledge of what happened there.
Despite this, Savile’s lawyers still threatened legal action when the Sun published a picture of Savile with children at the care home. A copy of the legal threat sent to the Sun in 2008, seen by the Guardian, was sent on behalf of Savile by Fox Hayes Solicitors, a Leeds business which is now defunct.
Emphasising the “huge sums” that Savile’s charity work had raised for children, the lawyers demanded the Sun issue a prominent statement “making clear that any visit to the home was entirely innocent”, delete the article from its website, and pay Savile compensation “for the injury to his feelings and reputation”.
The legal firm said child abuse was the “antithesis of everything he [Savile] has worked tirelessly to prevent”. They insisted the entertainer did not remember visiting children at the care home in the 1970s but “any such visit would have been unexceptional save for the pleasure it may have given”.
After Savile’s death in 2011, hundreds of his victims came forward. The public eventually learned that one of Britain’s most famous light entertainment stars was also one of the country’s most prolific paedophiles.
Jones, now editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, helped to tell the victims’ stories – but only after BBC bosses blocked his initial investigation from appearing on Newsnight in one of the corporation’s worst scandals.
He is now urging the government to reform Britain’s libel laws to make it easier for investigative stories to be published, warning they have been used by people ranging from Savile to major corporations and Russian oligarchs to avoid scrutiny. The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, is currently overseeing a review of the relevant legislation.
A spokesperson for the Sun declined to comment.