Jimmy Savile and tacit knowledge: what the past can teach us about the present

By Martin Vogel


The Jimmy Savile scandal is a textbook example of wilful blindness. It viscerally underlines the necessity for leaders to  free up tacit knowledge in their organisations.

The BBC is not alone in facing questions about how it allowed a predatory paedophile to conduct a career of child sexual abuse stretching over decades – apparently to the knowledge of colleagues around him. The NHS, the police, sundry care homes and approved schools among others also have to account for apparent failures in their duty of care. But the BBC holds a special responsibility, having provided the platform upon which Savile built his celebrity as a family entertainer and sustained his powerful influence over vulnerable people. Such is (or was) the trust in the BBC that the halo effect it conferred over Savile possibly encouraged others to drop their guard.

The secondary scandal, over Newsnight‘s failure to report what it had discovered about Savile after his death last year, is not merely an editorial lapse. It underlines just how little the BBC has progressed from the culture of denial which provided cover for Savile’s exploitation.

As the Telegraph columnist, Mary Riddell put it:

“It is the heartlessness of a BBC whose senior management looks casual in the face of suffering that may cause it the most lasting damage.”

It doesn’t help that those in charge today were themselves at school when Savile was abusing other children. The BBC and other institutions must demonstrate that they can learn from these events in their history.

Monday night’s Panorama, Jimmy Savile: What the BBC Knew, presented a saddening litany of opportunities missed to stop Savile’s abuse and to learn from mistakes. His behaviour was an open secret among staff at Radio 1 and on Nationwide, an evening news programme which was an institution in its own right in the 1970s. Yet broadcasters like Paul Gambaccini, erstwhile reporters such as Martin Young and Bob Langley, and former Radio 1 executives were unable to find the voice to challenge him. Savile’s reputation apparently was not known to the producers of his television shows, Clunk Click and Jim’ll Fix It, yet we heard that young girls and boys were openly abused by Savile and other celebrities in the presenter’s dressing room at Television Centre. When, decades later, these victims of abuse found the courage to tell their story, the BBC compounded the hurt by brushing aside their testimonies and spiking the investigation.

The accounts from Savile’s contemporaries put paid to notions that somehow the failure to stop him can be linked to more licentious mores of the day. It is certainly true that the footage of Savile fondling women on his programmes is shocking to today’s sensibilities. But what was then euphemistically known as “fiddling with children” was still regarded with opprobrium by decent opinion. Another continuity is that, as in the Sixties, we still find ways to explain away the need to take action – as did in recent years social workers and police officers in Rochdale. Young teenagers there who were routinely raped and physically assaulted were considered by child care officers to be “making their own choices” or “engaging in consensual sexual activity”.

It’s particularly perplexing when carers seem unable to fulfil the values of their profession. At Stoke Mandeville hospital there was an air of resignation among nurses to Savile’s abuse. Girls on the children’s ward were told to pretend to be asleep when he visited to avoid being attacked.

Perplexing it may be. But the truth is it is part of the human condition. Margaret Heffernan, in her definitive book Wilful Blindness, has synthesised a wide range of psychological findings to show conclusively how we are programmed to keep our heads down and not rock the boat. She ranges from Milgram’s obediance to authority experiments and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment to Darley and Latané’s work on the bystander effect by which people are less likely to intervene in a troublesome situation if there are other people around. She includes plenty of real-life examples: the paediatricians in a Bristol hospital who were unable to challenge an incompetent surgeon whose operations were killing children; the mother who failed to notice the evidence in her own home that her husband was abusing their daughter.

Reading her book prompts sympathy for people like Paul Gambaccini (at the time, a junior and relatively unknown DJ) and the nurses at Stoke Mandeville. They would surely have liked to have felt free to challenge Savile and bring his abuse to an end. Their natural empathy meant they knew that something was badly amiss; but their perception of the politics of working life meant they perceived only their own powerlessness and were at a loss to know what to do. As Heffernan puts it:

“What the bystander effect demonstrates is the tremendous tension between our social selves and our individual selves. Left on our own, we mostly do the right thing. But in a group, our moral selves and our social selves come into conflict, which is painful. The non-intervening subjects of Darley and Latané’s experiments had not, they said, decided not to intervene. Rather they were frozen in a state of indecision and conflict about whether and how to intervene. Looking for a way out of that discomfort, they choose the easier path, a kind of moral shortcut.”

This is why some of the most important knowledge that exists within organisations remains tacit. It is why it’s such an important attribute of leadership to find ways to alleviate the organisational forces which prevent people surfacing their concerns. The long-term integrity of the organisation, its ability to be true to its purpose, depends on it.

The reputation advisor, Anthony Fitzsimmons, has recognised in the BBC’s treatment of the Savile scandal some typical failings that bring organisations to the brink of terminal decline:

  • Poor internal communication that leaves leaders in the dark about important information
  • A culture that leads to turning a ‘blind eye’
  • A culture of ‘what’s normal around here’ that doesn’t stand external scrutiny
  • Inability to see themselves as outsiders see them
  • Inability to learn from past mistakes
  • Incentives not to ‘rock the boat’
  • Inability to see or deal with fundamental risks to their licence to operate 
  • Reluctance to recognise the potential toxicity of their track record.

One risk in the current situation is that, in their eagerness to demonstrate an ability to learn, the BBC and other institutions could draw some heavy-handed lessons.  Simon Jenkins – writing apropos George Entwistle’s appearance before MPs – describes all too clearly where this could lead:

“The BBC might well decide never again to let a child near a male studio presenter. Hospitals will be advised to recruit chaperones for males in children’s wards. MPs would apparently deplore anyone permitting children near adult strangers. Nor are children the only consideration. The Commons today elided paedophilia with sexual harassment. Again the consequence must surely be for the BBC, and any entertainment organisation, to deny lone females entry to men’s dressing rooms unaccompanied, for fear of having “permitted” sexual harassment. This already applies to school and university tutorials, irrespective of the age of those involved. Soon doctors, lawyers and priests will have to practise, like the police, in pairs. Responsibility for our behaviour apparently no longer rests on us as individuals but on anyone whom a lawyer can claim was ‘responsible’ for our contact with others. We are no longer our own masters. This is the royal road to Orwellian hell.”

A more desirable outcome would be to learn how to develop the capacity of people in organisations to challenge disturbing situations. If a contributory risk to wilful blindness is – as Fitzsimmons puts it – a culture of ‘what’s normal around here’ that doesn’t stand external scrutiny, then a mitigation is to find ways to bring the outside in. “Bringing in outsiders,” says Heffernan, “is one way to identify the unconscious knowledge embedded within organisations and bring it to the surface. It can be startling how a little dissent, how even a few questions, can change the tenor or a discussion.”

As insiders turned outsiders, whose main value proposition is the ability to ask a few questions that uncover unconscious knowledge, we at Vogel Wakefield know this to be the case. Leaders who work with an external coach on a one-to-one basis can find space to connect with the sense of empathy they experience in their personal lives but so often leave at the office door. This can be a crucial factor in finding moral courage either to hear difficult messages when they arise or to deliver them when they witness situations that demand integrity.

At the broader organisational level, interventions by outsiders can enable a level of honesty in conversations that would not otherwise occur. The elegance of asking questions as outsiders lies in the way it makes people feel safe to put on the table things they wouldn’t otherwise feel free to say. When we play back to leadership teams the themes we hear in their organisations, we witness discussions that go to fresh places and acknowledge elephants in the room that people had been studiously ignoring.

The various inquiries that have been set in train by the Savile scandal present an opportunity to learn how to deal with a troubling scourge that is still very much with us. The huge increase this month in people reporting experiences of child sex abuse shows that victims are hopeful that the opportunity will be taken. It will not be possible fully to prevent predators abusing positions of trust and authority. But we might find ways to enable institutions to notice more quickly what is happening and to find the capacity to take effective action.

Image courtesy JBPII.