The late John Peel is revered and celebrated by many lovers of rock and pop music as a legendary disc jockey. The BBC, for which he worked for many years, regards him a major figure in the history of broadcasting.
So in March 2012, the Corporation decided to rename a wing at Broadcasting House after Peel, who died in 2004. But while they were preparing to nail a blue plaque on the wall, an allegation was made that the DJ had had sex with an underage girl numerous times on BBC premises in 1969.
Amid a fusillade of similar allegations involving other former BBC DJs and employees, most notably Jimmy Savile, the Beeb hurriedly shoved the plaque into a drawer. It also said it would consider calling the Peel Wing something else, though in the event it did nothing.
In March 2012, the Corporation decided to rename a wing at Broadcasting House after Peel, who died in 2004. Then an allegation was made that the DJ had had sex with an underage girl on BBC premises in 1969
Now, more than two years later, the Mail’s Sebastian Shakespeare Diary has revealed that the Corporation is dusting off its blue plaque in the belief that the furore has died down. This is a decision that speaks volumes about the BBC. It shows it has still not come to terms with the industrial-scale sexual abuse which it tolerated among its ‘stars’.
I realise, of course, that Peel is still widely admired as a ‘national treasure’. All I can say is this was also true of many of the figures whose reputations lie in ruins: Jimmy Savile, Rolf Harris, Stuart Hall, Dave Lee Travis and so on.
Even before the allegation against Peel surfaced in October 2012, there were good reasons, which naturally the BBC had entirely ignored, for suspecting that he had unusual sexual tastes — or at any rate sexual tastes that were unusual outside the BBC.
As a young man he worked as a DJ in Texas in a local radio station. Much later he recalled that girls, some as young as 13, used to queue up outside his radio station.
‘Well, of course I didn’t ask for ID,’ he said. ‘All they wanted me to do was to abuse them sexually which, of course, I was only too happy to do.’ He complained that American girls had ‘this strange notion of virginity as a tangible thing which you surrendered to your husband on your wedding night. So they would do anything but s*** you’
Aged 26, in 1965, Peel married a 15-year-old American girl called Shirley Anne Milburn. He later claimed she and her family had lied about her age. They divorced in 1973. Some years later, after returning to the U.S., she committed suicide.
In the mid-Seventies, Peel wrote a column in Sounds (a rock music weekly) in which he sometimes mentioned that he preferred the company of fans when they were dressed as schoolgirls. He once put on a schoolgirl uniform for a picture, and ran a Schoolgirl of the Year competition on his Radio 1 show.
All this the BBC knew, or should have known, when it decided to rename a wing after him. The same might be said of the universities, including Bradford, Liverpool, Sheffield Hallam and East Anglia, which recklessly showered honorary degrees on a man whose sexual preferences would be regarded by most people as deviant.
Then, in October 2012, Jane Nevin alleged she had had a three-month affair with Peel when she was 15 and he was 30, much of it conducted on BBC premises. She became pregnant aged 16, and had a ‘traumatic abortion’. She said: ‘[Peel] must have known that I was still at school. But he didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell him.’
Of course, this is only an allegation, but it is practically irrefutable in view of several pieces of evidence, including a postcard sent by Peel to Jane Nevin many years later.
To anyone who says he can’t answer back, my response is that the same can be said of abusers such as Savile, or the former Liberal MP Cyril Smith. There’s nothing to suggest that Peel was a sexual predator on anything like the same scale as these monsters, but it’s hard to believe he would have escaped investigation by the police, at the very least, were he still alive.
Nor is there any validity in the defence enshrined in the French proverb ‘autres temps, autres moeurs’ (other times, different morals.) While it is undoubtedly the case that many BBC stars routinely had consensual sex with, or sexually assaulted, underage girls and occasionally boys, it is certain such practices would have been abhorrent to almost everyone outside the Corporation.
The BBC has not begun to come to terms with the scale of the degeneracy it fostered. It took far too long to confront the abuses of Jimmy Savile, whose victims can be numbered in hundreds. We know that as late as December 2011 an investigation into Savile’s vile practices by BBC2’s Newsnight was mysteriously axed by Corporation executives.
An internal investigation carried out by Nick Pollard, a former BSkyB executive, exonerated BBC bosses. But it later emerged that Pollard had been informed by senior BBC executive Helen Boaden that she had told Mark Thompson, the then director-general, at the time about the Newsnight investigation.
In other words, just as 30, 40 and 50 years ago BBC management turned a blind eye to sexual abuse on a vast scale, so its modern management seemingly tried to protect Savile for as long as possible, doubtless because it realised its own reputation was on the line.
When it eventually came, the apology for having indulged Savile for so long was very hollow. Just how hollow can be gauged by its decision to put up a plaque to honour John Peel.
Presumably even the BBC would not dare to name a wing after Jimmy Savile or Rolf Harris or Stuart Hall or any of the other reprobates whose appalling mistreatment of young people has been established.
Yet it still hopes to rehabilitate John Peel, in the mistaken belief that his misdemeanours have either been forgotten, or, if recalled, will not be considered sufficiently serious by most licence payers.
But aren’t sexual relations with a 13-year-old girl when he was in his early to mid-20s (specifically admitted by Peel in one newspaper interview) a serious matter, and don’t the other incidences of sex with minors, not to mention his stated preference for schoolgirls, together amount to a grave indictment?
Along with The Guardian, the BBC was in the vanguard of criticism of the News of the World over its phone-hacking of celebrities and others. Not only the wayward Sunday red-top was held to account. The entire Press was examined by Lord Justice Leveson, most of whose strident recommendations have been accepted by newspapers.
Phone-hacking is a serious business, but isn’t providing a nest for sexual abusers, and ignoring their sordid activities, more momentous? And isn’t apparently trying to cover up Savile’s crimes as recently as three years ago another scandal? Yet no Lord Justice Leveson has been summoned to investigate the Beeb.
If there were the slightest sign of contrition on the part of the BBC, that would be some sort of recompense. Oh for some sign that it has finally seen the error of its ways!
But its celebration of John Peel — a minor figure in the annals of sexual abuse, no doubt, but a predator nonetheless — suggests that the Corporation has learnt nothing from the past, and isn’t remotely sorry for what it did.