Outrageous libel laws protected Jimmy Savile. At last, change is on the cards

Anyone who has watched the new Netflix film Jimmy Savile: a British Horror Story will be asking how Savile got away with abusing children for decades – and why he wasn’t exposed earlier. As someone who spent years trying to expose him myself, I believe there are four key reasons.

First, institutions turned a blind eye because Savile was worth more to them than the victims were. Second, he built connections with the most powerful people in the country – the prime minister Margaret Thatcher and Prince Charles – which gave him protection. Third, he targeted vulnerable victims whose testimony would not stand up in court.

But the last reason – and the least discussed – is the way that our arcane libel laws protect the wicked.

Ever since the first high-profile libel case, when the most famous pirate in history – Captain Morgan – won £200 in damages (£40,000 today) in the 17th century for being accused of being a cruel buccaneer, our defamation laws have protected wrongdoers.

I can reveal that in 2008 the Sun was about to blow the whistle on Savile. They had affidavits from women who had been abused as children by him at the notorious Haut de la Garenne children’s home, which was at the centre of the Jersey child abuse scandal. The journalists and the editors were confident in their evidence. Then came the moment that the story had to be got through the in-house lawyers.

We can imagine the conversations. Who are our witnesses who will give evidence if Savile sues us for libel? They were children at the time – can we trust their memories? Some of them might have had criminal records or been involved with drugs. Remember, Savile deliberately targeted institutions where his victims might not be believed in court. 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 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 story’s 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.

Off the record, journalists have told me of multiple attempts to blow the whistle on Savile from the 1960s onwards that failed because newspapers could not afford the legal risks involved. Brian Hitchen, who was the editor of the Daily Star and the Sunday Express in the late 1980s and early 1990s, said he knew Savile was a paedophile at the time but thought the combination of his celebrity and our libel laws would make it impossible to publish the story.

In 1994 the Sunday Mirror tried to get the Savile story out. The editor, Paul Connew, was convinced but he knew that Savile would win if it came to court. Part of the calculation may have been that Savile would be represented by the fearsome QC George Carman.

In the end, the Sun in 2008 published a picture of Savile at Haut de la Garenne with a group of young children. “Sir Jimmy had no idea of the horrors at the orphanage,” the copy read, but it was obvious to me at the time what the Sun wanted to reveal but was unable to publish.

The photo became part of our evidence file at Newsnight in 2011 as the reporter Liz MacKean, researcher Hannah Livingston and myself started to piece together the evidence that Savile had abused children, not just at Duncroft (the school my aunt ran) but at every institution he was associated with, from Stoke Mandeville to the BBC, and Broadmoor to Haut de la Garenne.

Even the mild version of the story and the follow-ups that were published by the Sun caused Savile’s lawyers to write to the publication. “We act for Sir James Savile and have been consulted in relation to the above articles,” the letter read. “As your publication will know our client has tirelessly campaigned for underprivileged and sick children. His charity work over many years has raised huge sums which have benefited many projects and hospitals … Linking our client to events at the home has caused untold embarrassment and upset.”

As ever, Savile was trumpeting his knighthood, and therefore powerful connections, and hiding behind his charity fundraising and work with children.

His lawyers demanded the Sun take down the articles, pay compensation for “the injury to his feelings and reputation”, and, of course, his legal costs. Above all, this should all be confidential. To their credit, at least one Sun journalist continued pursuing Savile, but without success.

If the media found itself in the same position now, with a prolific offender with powerful friends, ample resources and vulnerable victims, I suspect the legal advice would be the same: don’t publish. Every investigative journalist can tell you about the ones that got away – the outright villains who escaped because the legal risks were too high.

But there is a chance to reset this. Our libel laws have come under scrutiny again after a succession of cases brought by oligarchs and big companies trying to limit journalists’ reporting. The Russian state energy company Rosneft and billionaires Roman Abramovich and Mikhail Fridman sued Catherine Belton for libel for her book Putin’s People, running up £1.5m in legal costs for her publishers (the claim was eventually settled, with several changes made to the book). Last month the high court threw out a longrunning claim by the controversial Kazakh mining corporation ENRC against the Financial Times and its journalist Tom Burgis.

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the government is moving to rein in our libel courts. The justice secretary, Dominic Raab, is now consulting on changes to the 2013 Defamation Act to make it more difficult for powerful individuals and organisations to use the courts to harass journalists and prevent them telling the truth about their wrongdoing. The government is considering a number of measures to discourage what are known as strategic litigation against public participation suits, or Slapps.

The law firms play an important role in protecting evildoers in Britain. As the MP Bob Seely said in the Commons: “Oligarchs, Putin’s henchmen, team up with amoral lawyers.” The libel specialists sometimes make the argument that it is like the right to counsel in a criminal trial – that, no matter how bad the allegations are, the individual needs to be defended – but there is no legal basis for this.

At best they seem unconcerned about whether the allegations are true. After Connew had to pull the paedophile allegations against Savile he talked to Carman, who told him: “I suspect you’re right.” Carman had previously succeeded in destroying a criminal child abuse case against another celebrity who later had to admit he was guilty.

One of the ideas is to strengthen the public interest defence in clause 4 of the act – this is crucial. It is difficult to think of anything that is more in the public interest than exposing an individual who is a prolific abuser of children. We must make sure that any changes made to the act help journalists expose wrongdoing, whether it is by oligarchs or prolific paedophiles, or other offenders.

In the Netflix documentary, Andrew Neil says, “As a profession, as journalists, we failed the country. We should have got this guy.” It is right that we should beat ourselves up – but the UK’s restrictive defamation litigation is a key part of that failure.

Savile would have been exposed decades earlier – dozens would not have been raped, hundreds would not have been assaulted – were it not for our insane libel laws.

At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism I receive dozens of letters from legal firms defending the indefensible, making false claims and threatening legal action. Recently one of the prominent firms sent a letter to a newspaper that was co-publishing a story with us. The letter was wrong about what had happened in court – even though it was a matter of public record. It arrived on deadline and the paper had no time to think and pulled the key allegation from the story.

The House of Lords is pressing the Solicitors Regulation Authority to clamp down on law firms representing oligarchs. It needs to go wider than that. A culture has grown up in which it is normal for some lawyers engaged in “reputation management” to knowingly lie on behalf of their clients in an attempt to shield them from damaging revelations by journalists. This should not be acceptable to the regulator.

So, the British horror story of Savile should feed into the discussion launched by Slapps into a rebalancing of the law in favour of public interest journalism – rather than enabling powerful individuals and corporations to evade justice.

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