It may be two years since Mark Williams-Thomas exposed the sex attack allegations against Jimmy Savile which had been ignored by the BBC with his ITV Exposure documentary.
But the ramifications of the story are still being felt. The Operation Yewtree police investigation into historic sex offences is ongoing and, in a separate inquiry, Sir Cliff Richard's home was recently searched by South Yorkshire Police after Williams-Thomas passed information on to the force.
- December 13, 2019
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- October 24, 2019
Williams-Thomas, a police officer turned investigator/journalist (via a stint as an advisor for fictional crime programmes), proudly tells me that his Savile story remained on the front pages for 41 days after it was broadcast in October 2012.
Yewtree has led to more than a dozen arrests and two high-profile convictions (Rolf Harris and Max Clifford).
Last month Home Secretary Theresa May announced a child sex abuse inquiry that will look into churches, the BBC, political parties and other institutions.
Despite the fact he was on Savile’s trail before his death in late 2011, Williams-Thomas believes that if the star was still alive he would not yet have been exposed – and therefore the various other celebrities and high-profile figures caught in recent years would not have been either.
Jimmy Savile (Reuters)
“No one would have broadcast that programme,” he tells me at Soho’s Groucho Club. He points out that as well as the BBC dropping its Newsnight investigation into Savile in December 2011 – which he worked on – the police also missed opportunities to catch the former Top Of The Pops presenter.
Williams-Thomas first heard of Savile’s abuse when working on another Newsnight story. It was on the aeroplane travelling back from Lyon, France, with producer Meirion Jones – whose aunt was headmistress at Duncroft School – where Savile is now widely known to have abused pupils.
“He said to me: ‘Have you heard about Jimmy Savile?’ And I said: ‘What do you mean?’ And he said: ‘Well, you know, he was a child abuser.’”
Williams-Thomas instantly wanted to investigate, but he says Jones told him that no one would touch the story. That changed a couple of months later when Savile died. Williams-Thomas was called in by Jones to be “an expert on how paedophiles operate” before the “editorial decision” was made to spike Newsnight’s investigation.
Rather than feeling bitter about the story being dropped at an early stage, Williams-Thomas saw this as an opportunity and asked Jones if he could take the story on. “Absolutely – please expose him,” Jones said.
After persuading ITV to consider the story – “they got it…but, I have to say, they were nervous” – Williams-Thomas, who was "not paid a penny" until the programme was made, linked up with freelance producer and director Lesley Gardiner, who sits in on part of this interview.
The two of them "followed a path" and by the time of broadcast, they had four victims and one witness of Savile’s abuse who were willing to speak.
Thanks, says Williams-Thomas, to the bravery of these women, the programme went ahead.
There have been negative repercussions – the investigator says he has received a letter bomb and child sex abuse material in the post – but the programme went on to win numerous awards and, Williams-Thomas believes, make a difference.
“The praise for this is for those five women,” he says. “If those five women hadn’t put their trust in me, and been brave enough to tell their story, then those many victims who have taken strength from that [wouldn’t have come forward].
“And I’ve talked to the victims in many of those [Operation Yewtree] court cases, and ongoing court cases now, and they personally say that if it hadn’t been for Savile’s exposure, they wouldn’t have come forward.”
As it is, Williams-Thomas believes his Savile story has led to a “sea change of culture, in the media, in the public, in the police, in the Crown Prosecution Service – across the board”.
Before embarking on his ten-month investigation into Savile, Williams-Thomas had worked on several other high-profile crime cases, including the murder of Sarah Payne when he worked for Surrey Police, and the murder of 12-year-old Tia Sharp, as a freelance journalist.
In the latter case, Williams-Thomas got an exclusive interview with Stuart Hazell, the schoolgirl’s murderer, before he was charged by police. This is part of the interview, which was broadcast on ITV News on the 9 August 2012:
“I knew at that point this was the interview with the killer,” says Williams-Thomas. “The more information he gave me, the easier the police’s job was – and that’s what the whole purpose was. I wanted the killer caught.”
He adds: “I just want people to tell me everything. And I wanted him to tell me everything in such detail that the police would then go back and say: ‘Is that right? Is that what you said?’”
What Williams-Thomas didn’t know was that Tia Sharp's body was in the attic of the house when he conducted his interview. An “inquisitive person” – “if you invited me to your house and I went to the toilet, I would go through your cupboards” – Williams-Thomas believes there is a chance he could have discovered her had Sharp’s family allowed him to go upstairs.
Asked how dealing with such horrific cases affects him personally, Williams-Thomas says: “I’ve seen the worst of the worst. I’ve seen children murdered, I’ve seen dead bodies, I’ve seen the worst scenarios, and I’ve seen horrific abuse that people wouldn’t even be able to contemplate.
“And does it upset me? Yeah, I continue to be upset. And it concerns me, and it worries me – and that in a way is what drives me to do what I do. I hope that I can try and make a difference. I can’t change the world, but I can help some people.
“And I’ll continue to do that as long as I can, as long as I have the ability to still expose people. And will I upset people? Yeah. But I hope the people that I upset are the baddies.”
Last month, he broke the news that retired judge Baroness Butler-Sloss stepped down as head of the inquiry into child sex abuse, saying she was “not the right person” for the job.
Williams-Thomas, who has immersed himself in the stories the probe will concern itself with, feels this decision was right, but is concerned the inquiry will not fulfill its job. He describes Home Secretary Theresa May’s proposal for an “inquiry of previous inquiries" as "absolutely pointless”.
"If the Government gets it right, by appointing the right people to head up the inquiry, it will lift a lid on a number of powerful people who either are offenders or covered up”, he says.
In addition to this story, Williams-Thomas has broken a number of Operation Yewtree exclusives over the last couple of years – including the fact that Rolf Harris had been questioned by police in November last year, which he broke on Twitter. It took another five months for The Sun to claim a front-page “world exclusive” on the same news.
Rolf Harris (Reuters)
While Williams-Thomas had his Harris story double-sourced, newspapers and broadcasters struggled to get the story out, with police refusing to confirm his identity. Policeman turned journalist Williams-Thomas believes that those arrested for child sex abuse should be named in the media – but that the authorities need to build up a stronger case on alleged abusers before an arrest is made.
And what does he make of relations between those working in his former and current professions? “The relationship has now got better than it was, but there’s still a long way to go back to the way it was,” he says.
“Had it gone too far, the relationship between the police and the media? I think in some cases it had – that pally relationship crossed the boundaries. But are we in a position now where it’s gone too far the other way? Yes. It’s very difficult to get the pendulum in the middle, and it’s now gone too far the other way.
“What’s really important is for the police and the media to understand the roles they play, and how it’s vital they work together. And I think that gets lost sometimes.”
He adds: “Leveson hasn’t helped. For all the good it’s done, it’s done bad as well. And I just hope that the police service over time will step back from it and go: ‘You know what, we do need those relationships. We need to understand where those boundaries are, but we do need those relationships – because we do need to work together.’”