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For nearly 50 years, the British Broadcasting Corporation has been highly regarded for its coverage of human and civil rights abuses in Britain and beyond. But now the BBC finds itself accused of quietly concealing widespread sexual abuse by one of its most recognizable TV celebrities. We look at the repercussions of this scandal for the BBC, and explore the psychology behind protecting private and celebrity culture at big institutions.
- Jennifer Freyd Professor of Psychology, University of Oregon
- John Lloyd Contributing Editor, The Financial Times
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a story that sounds all too familiar in this country: A much-loved figure at a revered institution is found to have sexually abused children over many years. As victims come forward, the public is left wondering how this sordid behavior went on for so long without being reported and whether it was covered up. This sad soul searching is going on right now at the British Broadcasting Corporation, an institution so widely trusted that Britons refer to it as Auntie.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOver the past few weeks, an investigation has found that one of BBC's most recognizable TV celebrities, Jimmy Savile, allegedly abused hundreds of girls. As the investigation sweeps other popular figures into the case, the press and the public are asking hard questions about who knew what and when. But scientific research has shown that these questions don't have cut-and-dried answers.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to have this conversation from the studios at the University of Oregon is Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology at the university and co-author of the upcoming book "Blind to Betrayal." Jennifer Freyd, thank you for joining us.
PROF. JENNIFER FREYDIt's pleasure to join you.
NNAMDIAnd joining us by phone from London is John Lloyd, contributing editor to The Financial Times. He's also director of journalism of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. John Lloyd, thank you for joining us.
MR. JOHN LLOYDThanks for having me.
NNAMDIJohn, this story has rocked Britain and not just because Jimmy Savile was such a widely-loved celebrity for so many decades, but you say it's especially difficult because of the role the BBC has played in reporting on civil and human rights abuses over the years. Can you give us some context here?
LLOYDYes. I mean, the BBC, certainly since '60s, has been, I think, proactive on the liberal side of society in the sense that it's tended to support, either tacitly or openly, changes to the law, for example, on human and civil rights. It actually, ironically, launched what is still the best-known 24-hour telephone service for abused children called ChildLine, which grew out of a program that it made with another famous presenter called Esther Rantzen.
LLOYDSo it's been on that a progressive side. It's tended to see itself, under a degree it's least been seen, as on the side of the angels, morally, socially, even politically. And it has been the complaint of conservatives for many years, decades really, that it's tended to be leftist in its views and liberal at least in its views.
LLOYDSo the fact that it seems now, perhaps for 20 years, one of its most famous and, not to be said, most popular presenters, Jimmy Savile, who was Sir Jimmy Savile -- he was knighted by the queen for his charitable work -- that he had been such an enthusiastic abuser of children is a severe blow to that image of the BBC and also a severe blow to its managerial systems because it's assumed it has its -- rightly or wrongly -- it's not yet known.
LLOYDBut some people, at least in the BBC, at managerial or even higher executive level, knew or at least heard the rumors about Savile, because they were rife, and preferred to ignore rather than to investigate. So the present leadership is now left with this mess, and it has to be said, for the first week or so, has tended to flounder.
NNAMDIHow did Jimmy Savile become almost as big as the institution of the BBC itself? And what was known about his behavior as his celebrity ballooned?
LLOYDThe part -- he's celebrity itself. He was a working-class boy from a poor Catholic family with, I think, six -- five or six siblings. He lived with his mother all of his life. And he was eccentric. He dressed in very loud tracksuits. He always had a big cigar, rather imitating Winston Churchill. He drove a Rolls-Royce. He was flamboyant, clearly, but he never lost his working-class accent or his roots. So he appealed, I think, a lot to the audience of the BBC, BBC Television. He also, of course, introduced the main pop music program, so he was seen by a lot of younger people.
LLOYDAnd he inserted himself into the affections of the audiences, really, from the '60s onwards. So -- plus, he did a great deal of work for charity. He raised a lot of money for charity. He ran marathons. He presented shows which raised money. And it -- either it was not known generally. Certainly, it wasn't known generally that he was an abuser.
LLOYDAnd for those more in the know, people who knew him, as I say, I think either didn't know the extent of it or -- and this is a sad comment on the times -- thought that since he was a big star, he -- you know, he deserved a bit of slack and therefore wasn't pulled up. The women whom -- these girls whom he abused are very often vulnerable, either vulnerable physically or mentally, and the horror stories which are now coming out, which are still allegations rather than proven, are pretty bad, that he took advantage of these girls because they were weak, weak in the social sense.
LLOYDThey said, as they've testified now as grown women, that they would not be believed if they had complained about him or, if they were believed, would be dismissed as, you know, don't worry about it, it's only a bit of fun. So that's, I think, the reason why he has been, until very recently -- and now, of course, after his death -- he's been invulnerable.
NNAMDIWe're talking about the scandal at the BBC and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you think the public is too quick to give celebrities the benefit of the doubt? 800-433-8850. You can also send email to email@example.com. Jennifer Freyd, then there's this. You created the term betrayal blindness to describe, to some extent, what we're hearing about the BBC and, for that matter, what we heard about what happened at Penn States, what we're hearing about the Boy Scouts and several other institutions. Exactly what is betrayal blindness?
FREYDWell, we first developed the term in the context of interpersonal relationships, one-on-one sorts of betrayals and abuse -- for instance, child abuse or marital rape. And what we observed was the individuals caught up in those situations, the victims, often showed a tendency to not have full awareness of what was happening to them. And that's betrayal blindness, being blind in either very completely or partially to a severe betrayal. And we understand that as a survival mechanism.
FREYDAnd the way it works is this: If the person who is abusing you or betraying you is somebody you're dependent on and have a very strong need to trust, it makes sense, under some conditions, to suppress the awareness of that betrayal in order to preserve that relationship. So if you think of a kid being betrayed by a powerful adult in their life, if they become aware of the abuse and betrayal and they confront it or withdraw from the person, they'd likely to make their situation much worse.
FREYDAnd we studied that in the laboratory and in other ways, empirically and theoretically, for really 20 years and have found a lot of indication that betrayal blindness occurs and can be very damaging to people later on, even if it helps them get through the situation in the short run. Recently, we've become very interested in these very same dynamics occurring at the institutional level. And we've been looking at situations -- somewhat like the one you're describing -- where, for instance, sexual assaults are occurring in an institutional context.
FREYDAnd the institution seems to fail to respond in a way they could. The people and the institutional culture you might say turns a blind eye to what's right there in plain sight. And we understand this as involving a lot of different motivations and dynamics. Obviously, some people know fully aware what's -- are fully aware and choose not to confront it because they have their own motivations.
FREYDBut what we're interested in is how lots of what you might say good people also fail to see what's in front of them because, for them, they are protecting their own position, but not necessarily in a way that's conscious. they're not necessarily saying, I'm not going to report this because I want to keep my job. Some people might think that. But other people may have that same kind of reasoning occurring outside their awareness, leaving them vulnerable to not seeing what is right there or at least suppressing that information, keeping it out of their awareness.
NNAMDIBut, Jennifer Freyd, now those people, for instance, at the BBC may have been blind to Savile's behavior or maybe, as you pointed out, not fully aware. What happens when they do become fully aware, when they, well, were blind, but now they see?
FREYDWell, I mean, that varies greatly depending on the institutional culture and response. And one of the things that we know is that different institutional cultures -- including explicit structures as well as behaviors that people consider acceptable -- can really make a difference in situations like this, whether people feel free to come forward, whether they get punished when they do come forward or not.
FREYDI think the really exciting and good news right now is that, as a society, we're really starting to look at this. This sort of behavior has been going on for a very long time, but, as you noted, there's a number of high-profile cases now where people are no longer turning a blind eye and starting to look at it. And institutions and structures such as the BBC can choose to put into place all sorts of precautions to make it unlikely this will happen again. And one of the most important things is to cherish the whistle-blower, to protect the person who dares to speak out in a situation like this.
NNAMDIWell, the BBC may not have precautions, have had precautions, but they've certainly had an investigation. We'll talk about what happened with that investigation after this short break. We're talking about the scandal at the BBC and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. What good do you think will come of such scandals like at the BBC or at Penn State and others like it? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. As you know, we're in the middle of coverage of Hurricane Sandy right now. And you can listen to President Barack Obama's statement on Hurricane Sandy right now on Intersection at WAMU 88.5's HD Channel 3. Streaming and local news updates are available at wamu.org. Back to our conversation about the scandal at the BBC, we're talking with Jennifer Freyd, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-author of the upcoming book "Blind to Betrayal," and John Lloyd, contributing editor to the Financial Times.
NNAMDIHe's also director of journalism of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. John Lloyd, a smoking gun proving that top executives knew about the abuse and covered it up has not been found. What we do know is that the BBC's "Newsnight" program did an investigation of Savile's alleged crimes month ago that was ultimately scrapped. What do we know about what happened at the BBC internally as allegations of pedophilia started to become public?
LLOYDIt's -- that's the core of the mystery really. "Newsnight," which is a nightly current affairs programs, which goes out about half past 10 in the evening on the second channel and is about an hour long and is generally reckoned to be a serious program with investigative journalism and quite searching interviews. The editor had commissioned a piece on Savile while the rumors were circulating.
LLOYDBut nothing particular had been done in the media, not in the newspapers or on television, and seemed keen on it, according to two reporters who were assigned the story, and then all of a sudden changed his mind and said there was not enough material to go on with and canned the story. He, unfortunately, has not spoken as to why he did that.
LLOYDThe head of the BBC, who's new in the job, only about a month or so in the job, George Entwistle said that he deeply regretted that it hadn't been proceeded with and denied that anybody in the BBC hierarchy had stopped the editor of "Newsnight" from doing it. But it remains something of a mystery as to why he did so. The most common explanation is that, because a police force which had been investigating Savile had given up the investigation or had not continued to take it to the point where it could press charges, that this influenced the editor.
LLOYDIf the police force couldn't find evidence, then he thought that the program might get into trouble for alleging material -- alleging instances which had not happened. And the other thing is that many of the women who were -- now women, then girls -- who were abused had been in a home for the -- for people who are talented but mentally fragile. And it was thought that their evidence might not stand up to close examination.
LLOYDSo for these reasons, it seems likely that the editor canned it. But there still is this question as to whether or not the BBC, which wanted to go ahead with a tribute to Savile, had in some way indicated to him that he shouldn't go ahead, not giving him a direct order, but said it's very difficult, and you know what will happen if you do and so forth. That is still a subject of much speculation but, as yet, no final illumination.
NNAMDIJennifer Freyd, when an institution closes ranks or certainly appears to close ranks in the public perception in an effort to keep something like this under the rug to keep it quiet, what tends to be the long-term impact?
FREYDWell, if it doesn't open up and shine a light on the situation, it allows two things to occur at a minimum. One is that similar forms of abuse occur. So if you have one perpetrator getting away with it and you don't deal with it, you're going to have another perpetrator getting away with it as well. And then the other thing is that the victims of the crime that are in an institutional betrayal situation, like apparently was occurring in this case, those victims get further hurt by the institutional behavior.
FREYDSo we've completed research. It's in press in a research journal indicating that, at least in an educational context where we looked, that victims of sexual assault who run up against the behavior of institutional denial, those victims are having a harder time than they otherwise would. So it's -- we believe it exacerbates the effects of assault.
NNAMDIJohn Lloyd, couple of questions. What has been the political fallout from this? And what has been the media fallout? There is some feeling, it seems, that other media in Britain are reacting with schadenfreude at what's going on at BBC, especially in the light of the phone-hacking scandal that shook Rupert Murdoch's "News International."
LLOYDOn the first, on the political fallout, actually not much. The main parties, both the two governing parties in coalition, the conservative senior partner and the liberal Democrats, (unintelligible) have both, of course, condemned it. The prime minister had said that the BBC must make a thorough investigation. The labor opposition has said more or less the same. For once, politicians really are not in the frame and are not being blamed for this. The schadenfreude is actually a mild word.
LLOYDThe tabloids, which are very powerful in the U.K. -- indeed most newspapers in the U.K. by circulation are tabloids. Seven million out of 9 million sold every morning are tabloid papers. Number two most powerful, the Daily Mail, which sells just over 2 million, and The Sun, which sells around 3 million, The Sun being owned by Rupert Murdoch, have both, especially The Sun, been very much in the frame of the phone-hacking allegations and the fallout from that.
LLOYDAnd the BBC, when it gave evidence to the inquiry and the phone hacking, was -- made it very clear that it wouldn't do things like that. It was not that kind of a media organization. So now, the tabloids, who have always disliked the BBC because they believe it's too high-minded and too far -- too much state-supported institution, which then -- which they have to compete with in the private market, they are now having a field day.
LLOYDAnd both the commentary on the reporting has been sharply critical -- everything from allegations of hypocrisy through to reporting, which seems not to have too much foundation, that the senior people in the BBC knew perfectly well that Savile was a pedophile and chose to cover it up. So the BBC -- it's quite -- it's difficult to imagine, really, how serious it is for the BBC and for a new and rather untried director general on how much indignation is being stirred up...
NNAMDIWe are just about...
LLOYD...and how far the BBC is blamed for it.
NNAMDIWe're just about out of time. Jennifer Freyd, in 30 seconds or so, can you talk about what good you think can come out of scandals like this at the BBC, Penn State and others like it?
FREYDOh, I believe strongly that, by looking at this with open eyes, we can make a big dent in stopping future occurrences of this and helping people, who've been victimized in this way, heal.
NNAMDIBut we have to look at it, as you say, with open eyes. Jennifer Freyd is professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and co-author of the upcoming book "Blind to Betrayal." Thank you for joining us.
FREYDThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJohn Lloyd is a contributing editor to The Financial Times. He is also director of journalism of the Reuters Institute at Oxford University. John Lloyd, thank you for joining us.
LLOYDThanks to you.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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