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The Sir Jimmy Savile Scandal: Child Sexual Abuse and Institutional Denial at the BBC

Greer, C. ORCID: 0000-0002-8623-702X & McLaughlin, E. (2013). The Sir Jimmy Savile Scandal: Child Sexual Abuse and Institutional Denial at the BBC. Crime Media Culture: An International Journal, 9(3), pp. 243-263. doi: 10.1177/1741659013513782


This study advances research on scandal through an empirical examination of one of the most extraordinary UK institutional child sexual abuse (CSA) scandals in the post-war period. Sir Jimmy Savile (1926–2011) was a BBC celebrity, showbiz friend of the establishment and philanthropist. In October 2012, one year after his death, an ITV documentary alleged that Savile was also a prolific sexual predator who for decades had exploited his BBC status to abuse teenage girls. As we demonstrate, this incendiary documentary triggered a news media feeding frenzy that in less than one week destroyed Savile’s reputation and thrust the BBC – the institution that made him a star – into a multi-faceted, globally reported CSA scandal. This study has four purposes. First, we propose a model of institutional CSA scandals that can account for critical transitions between key phases in the scandal process. Second, we apply this model to analyse the transition between the ‘latent’ and ‘activated’ phases of the Savile scandal. This transition corresponded with a dramatic transformation in the inferential structuring of Savile from ‘national treasure’, who had devoted decades to working with children, to ‘prolific sexual predator’, who spent decades abusing them. Third, we demonstrate how the BBC’s denial of responsibility for Savile’s sexual offending and its subsequent institutional cover-up triggered a ‘trial by media’ which in turn initiated the next phase in the scandal’s development – ‘amplification’. Finally, we consider the significance of our analysis of the Sir Jimmy Savile scandal for understanding the activation and development of scandals more generally.

Publication Type: Article
Publisher Keywords: BBC, denial, institutional failure, paedophile, scandal, sexual abuse, Sir Jimmy Savile
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HV Social pathology. Social and public welfare
Departments: School of Policy & Global Affairs > Sociology & Criminology
SWORD Depositor:
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