“I “I want to see heads roll at the BBC. Not trustees, or the Director-General, token sacrificial lambs. I’ll start with the despicably dishonest Meirion Jones. On a pike. Outside BBC headquarters.” – Anna Raccoon blog, 26 October, 2012
When Meirion Jones emailed me early last month, asking for an interview, I was intrigued. Here was a guy, as I soon discovered, with a big reputation as a top flight TV documentary maker, winner of the Daniel Pearl Award for his investigation of Trafigura’s toxic waste dumping in Africa and star of numerous other genuinely important exposés. Yet he was the also the man behind the wretchedly inadequate Newsnight exposure of Jimmy Savile, rightly dropped by BBC executives (who were then castigated for their cowardice) because it did not stand up. Yes, there were BBC cockups, but the independent Pollard Report concluded in December that the decision to drop the programme had been taken in good faith. Jones was also the man so ball-breakingly denounced by a woman who had been right at the epicentre of the allegations – a former pupil at Duncroft School for girls. Blogging as Anna Raccoon, her detailed assessment portrayed a “despicably dishonest” Jones who had exploited a vulnerable, unstable, supposed “victim” and failed to disclose that his own aunt had been headmistress of the school.
Strong stuff, and before deciding how to respond to Jones’s invitation, I decided I would first interview him, quizzing him for about 45 minutes by phone over Anna Raccoon’s allegations. His mixture of plausible denial, and assurances supported by contextual detail, left me unable to nail any particular falsehood or bad practice on his part: for that I would have needed aces up my sleeve from serious investigative legwork of my own, and I had not been resourced for that. His strongest point was that his accuser had not been at the school in the era when Savile was a regular there, whereas Jones had visited his aunt frequently at her home in the school grounds and personally seen Savile on the premises a number of times. My impression remains that Raccoon is entirely right to regard the Duncroft part of the case against Savile as thin to vanishing; but that does not mean Jones was dishonest or behaved improperly.
In the end, I think, it comes down to a clash of values: what constitutes a scandal depends on what you think is reasonable behavior. Public standards have changed. Duncroft was clearly a very special place decades ago. It was a residential school for highly intelligent but “wayward” girls, as they would once have been called – the “hard to handle” daughters of elite families, including top military brass, film stars and even minor royalty. Jones’s aunt has admitted the girls were “no angels”. Many of them – including the key witness in Meirion Jones’s ditched film, who later “starred” in the ITV follow-up, were thrilled at the time to see a bit of action with Savile. It was all very St Trinians: “…an unorthodox girls’ school where the younger girls wreak havoc and the older girls express their femininity overtly, turning their shapeless schoolgirl dress into something sexy and risqué.” Would the audiences of the early St Trinians films half a century ago have been shocked by Savile’s escapades? They might have been merely amused, as they were by the films themselves.
But why, you might wonder, was Jones interested in me? After all, I’m not an old Duncroft girl, and I doubt I’d be mistaken for a St Trinians one either, even if I were to slip into a gym slip (perish the thought!) Turns out he’d been alerted to my existence as a result of discovering this very blog, Heretic TOC. Or, rather, my continued existence. He knew of my work with PIE in the 1970s – which is why he wanted to talk – but until seeing Heretic TOC he thought I was dead! Like Jon Henley of the Guardian a few months ago, he said he would like to get my views on why British society, along with others, is now so militantly hostile to paedophilia compared to just two or three decades ago. He said he just wanted an off-the-record discussion, not an on-camera piece. No particular programme had been commissioned. He wanted background because the theme is “hot” and likely to remain so for some time to come.
Obviously, it would have been crazy to hold out hopes of good publicity coming out of a meeting with a guy who had done so much to trash Savile, and I didn’t. But I was curious: on my side there was nothing to lose, as my life has long been an open book. Besides, he was offering a modest fee and I thought such a meeting could yield some lowdown on any other looming scandals he might be nosing into; it might also offer insights into how a guy with Jones’s reputation goes about this type of story. Anna Raccoon’s “take no prisoners” views on that are entertainingly colourful but, well, there may be a touch of St Trinians in her!
So Jones and I met. Not, dear readers, clandestinely in an underground car park, but in a plain business boardroom suite chosen and hired by me in a quiet location in the north of England where I could audio record the whole encounter with good sound quality. That was one of my terms: off the record, but on my recorder! He readily agreed to that, but unfortunately I cannot go into specifics about the questions he asked: that was his prior stipulation, although he knows I’ll be blogging.
What I can give, though, is the clear impression I formed of a man who, without being in the least bit underhand or devious, so far as I could tell, is still on a mission to identify and hunt down “guilty parties” from the past – not Savile, this time, but other “powerful people in high places”, perhaps people “at the heart of government”. These and other clichés of the conspiracy-minded appear to depend for their appeal on a simplistic Manichean split between goodies and baddies, with the baddies as the evil, controlling insiders. Meirion Jones and his ilk, in another dodgy binary, appear to see themselves as heroic lone rangers, outsiders riding into town to right all the wrongs. Well, it may work with tightly focused, rather distinct wrongs, such as toxic waste dumping and – Jones’s latest big story – bogus bomb detectors, reliance on which may have cost hundreds of lives in post-war Iraq; but in matters of more complex cultural change it seems to me like a hopelessly wrong-headed mode of investigation.
It is too narrow, too blinkered. Yes, we discussed some of the “wide-ranging” background issues in which he had initially expressed an interest – the rise of feminism, for instance – but there were strong indications that to him this was all just a nebulous and irritating distraction from the real business at hand. Only when we were focusing minutely on the culture of the Home Office in the late 1970s did I sense from him any real sense of engagement, and that is not even my area of insider knowledge: he would do better to ask a conventional historian! Perhaps he will.