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Credit: Di Spinaci

Music

A troubling national treasure? Dissecting the dark side of John Peel

@SamWKemp

The former BBC radio DJ John Peel is one of the UK’s most enduring national treasures. From the 1960s until a year before his death in 2004, Peel represented the vanguard of musical innovation, using his position as a long-serving radio broadcaster with Britain’s most prominent station to promote and celebrate some of the country’s finest talent. He plugged everyone from T. Rex to Blur, and, as a result, he is still regarded as one of the UK music industry’s most influential figures. So, in 2012 – to honour Peel’s legacy – the BBC took steps to name an entire wing of Broadcasting House after him. 

However, ‘The John Peel Wing’ quickly became the subject of controversy after allegations were made about the Radio DJ that claimed he had engaged in sexual activity with a number of underage girls. Allegations such as these came to define 2012. That year, the Operation Yewtree investigations into historic child sex abuse began after more than 200 women came forward with allegations against Peel’s fellow BBC broadcaster and TV personality Jimmy Saville. The investigation marked a watershed moment for the BBC because it asked the organisation to face up to something that it had been choosing to ignore for decades: the sheer scale of the sexual abuse that had gone on behind closed doors.

However, in the case of John Peel, it seemed that the BBC was continuing to venerate figures whose dark past was well known within the industry. Many of you might not be aware of John Peel’s history with underage girls, but in 1989, he gave an interview in which he described his time working for a local Radio station in Texas.

According to Peel, “Girls used to queue up outside. By and large, not usually for shagging. Oral sex they were particularly keen on”. Sometimes these women were above the age of consent – around the age of 21 – but, judging from the way Peel describes the women he slept with, it would seem like they were the exception, not the rule. Seemingly, they were “extraordinarily older” than his usual clientele. For Peel, being in this position of power was like all of his “masturbation fantasies becoming fact. But with it came danger. One of my, er, regular costumers, as it were, turned out to be 13,” Peel said.

“Turned out” – herein lies the complexity. Peel’s recounting of this period is full of both celebratory and ironic declarations. Although he seems to recognise his misgivings, that doesn’t stop him from forgiving them or from absolving himself of responsibility. “Turned out” implies that Peel only had sex with this girl because he assumed that she was over the age of consent and that he was shocked to discover the truth.

Describing the incident in this way places the burden of responsibility on the girl herself while ignoring the power dynamic inherent to these types of sexual encounters. It wasn’t the first time Peel had used this reasoning to retreat from responsibility. Early in his career, Peel also married 15-year-old Shirley Anne Milburn, later claiming her parents had lied about her age. Also, in that 1989 interview, Peel described how “it was not a happy marriage to begin with. And it got worse”. Following the couple’s divorce in 1973, Milburn ended up being convicted for several drugs and fraud offences. As Peel recalled: “She fell in with some extremely dodgy people. She died last year as the result of a previous suicide attempt”.

Then, in 2012, a woman called Jane Nevin came forward to claim she had a three-month relationship with Peel when he was 30, and she was 15. According to Nevin, the relationship ended with a “traumatic” abortion. Nevin’s allegation shed a disturbing light on Peel, not least because she said that Peel “must have known that I was still at school. But he didn’t ask, and I didn’t tell him”. Indeed, Peel himself once claimed that he “didn’t ask for ID” when people wanted to sleep with him. Again, we see Peel’s tendency to celebrate his actions when it suits him and refuse any responsibility when it doesn’t.

At the time these allegations were made, a BBC spokesperson addressed the decision to open The John Peel Wing of Broadcasting House, remarking: “Clearly, in the event of proven allegations of sexual abuse, the BBC would reconsider its decision on the naming of part of our new building.” It seems (although it’s worryingly difficult to find sources to prove this) that the allegations never came of anything. But let’s not forget this was pre the #MeToo movement. Historically, men who have been convicted of sexual assault or exploiting their power for their own sexual gratification have been readily forgiven, or perhaps the allegations have been swept under the carpet for the sake of rocking the boat.

It would seem that the BBC’s enduring veneration of Peel – regardless of the validity of the allegations – is proof of how little they learned from the Jimmy Saville case. Moreover, it is an indication of just how willing the public is to shelve any notion that the personalities they grew up with have a darker side. However, judging by how many revered rockstars have since been accused of sleeping with underage girls, it’s hard to say how long this willful ignorance can be maintained.

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