Friday, October 12, 2012

Jimmy Savile: a few thoughts

No, this isn’t really about Jimmy Savile himself, or what he did, or what he’s alleged to have done. That’s all bad; it’s pretty clear that the man was a vicious abuser who used his charitable deeds as both cover and as a cynical, implicit bargaining tool; you don’t need me to tell you any of that. This is more about the responses and reactions to what we know.

First, about the rumours that were apparently circulating for decades about Savile’s behaviour, and the fact that nobody ever acted about them. Well, of course there were rumours, because Savile was a very famous person and there are always rumours about very famous people. Way back when I was completely outside the media loop, I heard rumours about Jimmy Savile; oddly, all of them revolved around his apparent fondness for acts of necrophilia, which he supposedly indulged under the cover of his voluntary work as a hospital porter; I don’t recall anything about child abuse. And I heard other rumours too, about all sorts of people, about the Queen Mother and Michael Portillo and Morrissey and Bobby Moore and Prince Edward and Bill Treacher and Jason Donovan and Patrick Moore and Kevin Keegan and Gerald Kaufman and Una Stubbs and any number of Radio One DJs. Some were accusations of serious criminal behaviour, some were about harmless quirks that, supposedly, the relevant parties preferred not to disclose. Anyone remember Scallywag magazine? The John Major story was pretty bland compared to some of the stuff they came up with.

I have no idea how many of these tales were wholly or partly true and I probably never will. I’m not suggesting that the accusations about Savile are fabricated, but if journalists followed up every celeb-related rumour that some bloke in the pub insisted was God’s honest truth, there would be a hell of a lot of libel suits knocking around, and even more dead-cert stories that turned out to be dead ends. You need more than urban myth or gut instinct. Yes, Savile was odd, eccentric, weird, creepy. People said dodgy things about him. He had strange hair. The same goes for Chris Jeffries, the entirely innocent Bristol landlord caught up in a murder investigation a couple of years ago. That didn’t end well for the papers concerned, did it?

But a big chunk of the press seems to be using the Savile saga as leverage to redeem itself after the whole phone-hacking/Leveson enquiry saga. Look what happens when celebrities get the upper hand, they bleat, when the fine upstanding spirit of British journalism is cowed by libel and privacy laws. Which is utter bollocks, frankly. If they were using their various scams and skulduggeries to expose real, serious, extensive wrongdoing rather than just dicking around below the surface of Hello-magazine banality, then we’d be impressed. It was in the public interest to know that Savile was abusing girls; it was not in the public interest to know that Charlotte Church might be having boyfriend trouble. Which one made the front pages?

Moreover, certain papers also see the scandal as a stick with which to wallop their eternal nemesis, the BBC. Yes, I don’t doubt that there was a culture at the BBC in the 60s and 70s and even into the 80s that by modern standards would seem pretty toxic and that some men were able to use their power and influence to take sexual advantage of people with less clout. Again, that was bad and wrong, and we need to know about it. But are we to understand that everybody employed by The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph at the time was entirely without sin? Or that, had any equivalent rumours been knocking around about high-profile journalists and editors at those papers, there wouldn’t have been a temptation to either cover things up, or deliberately look the other way?

Again – bollocks. The BBC was a product of its time, as was (and is) every other institution. It looks wrong now, but it was wrong everywhere, not just in the studios of Top of the Pops or Radio One. Low-level sexual assault could be passed off as horseplay and if anyone complained, it was evidence of a sense-of-humour failure or lesbianism or the time of the month. And once you allow that, the tolerance level for bad behaviour rises incrementally, until you get vulnerable girls being molested in dressing rooms.

But that wouldn’t be tolerated now. And this is the ultimate, sanctimonious hypocrisy of those currently laying into the BBC. A modern-day Savile would be stopped in his tracks because women and children would be empowered to speak up. He wouldn’t get the benefit of the doubt just because he was rich and popular and male. And do you know what caused this turnaround? Not the fearless investigation of plucky newspaper journalists, that’s for sure. No, it was the changes in attitude wrought by feminism and by so-called political correctness, gone mad or otherwise; the very social forces still roundly condemned on a regular basis in The Sun and The Mail and The Telegraph. As it happens.

PS: In the London Review of Books, Andrew O’Hagan goes deeper and further back.


Anonymous said...

Thoughtful piece and yes, changes in societal attitudes are a partial victory for feminism. But considerable abuse still happens, as evidenced by the statistics. According to the 2010 Stern Report, commissioned by the Home Office:

'Last year, 435,000 people suffered rape or sexual violence. But despite progress in recent years, it is estimated that up to 9 in 10 cases of rape go unreported and 38 per cent of serious sexual assault victims tell no one about their experience.'

One point of detail: Savile abused under age boys as well as girls. His abuse of teenage boys was known about by the police in Manchester during the early to mid 1960s, when he lived in the city, running gigs at Belle Vue. No formal caution was given - he was told to keep his activities quiet - and a blind eye was turned. A sadly familiar response from the authorities.

Pat said...

These latest revelations and remembering what was swept under the carpet in the fifties has caused me to look with more sympathy abnd understanding on Women's Lib.

Tim Atkinson said...

Una Stubbs? UNA STUBBS?! I don't, I can't, I won't believe it.

The Hill Mouse said...

Good piece that skewers the various levels of hypocrisy nicely.

I feel that one of the lessons to be learnt is not about people who are a bit wierd, which as you point out ends up with the media chasing after innocent people like Chris Jeffries, but is about people who use a larger than life public persona to hide distasteful activities going on in the background.

At the same time as Savile is finally being exposed there is a media-love-in going with a certain London mayor. It's obvious that Boris is something of a megalomaniac but I can't help feeling there's a parallel with Savile. I'm not suggesting that Boris is up to the same types of activity as Savile, and it's also well documented that his real ambitions are to be PM. But, I also wonder what he's using that extrovert, larger-than-life personality to hide.

One of Savile's tricks was to make us all complicit - back in the day we all watched Jim'll Fix It on a Saturday night and enjoyed it. We watched him on Top of the Pops, we watched the InterCity ads. He successfully engaged us in his persona so it was impossible to see what was staring us in the face - a grown man who likes hanging around with children.

This complicity is the same trick that Boris is using. Even if we don't agree with his politics, we enjoy the jokes and the knockabout. But what's the thing that's staring us in the face about Boris that we don't want to admit to ourselves but in 20 years we'll wonder why we couldn't see it.

Pearl said...

I regret to say I know nothing of this -- of course, I live in Minneapolis and am probably not expected to. (Ack -- what a terrible sentence -- but it's early. Forgive me.)

It's both an international relief and disgust that these things happen everywhere.


Malcolm Cinnamond said...

I'm horrified nobody in the Press had the balls to run the story when he was alive, although having worked in newspapers in the late 70s, maybe I'm not surprised.

I'm also horrified - and I know I'm not alone in this - that it took me 51 years to realise there was only one 'l' in Savile.

Zoe said...

What sickens me about it all are the people who knew but never spoke up. Paul Gambaccini was very vocal about Savile before the airing of the programme, Mark Radcliffe said during his show (in Nantwich, this past Tuesday) that "you only had to look at him" which could have been meant satirically - but I Don't Think So.

Esther Rantzen had it spot on: "We (his peers) were all culpable - we made him into the man he became" - or something.

The trouble is, this country is so sensitive with regards adults and children that it has become ludicrous. But then - who can you trust?

Indigo Roth said...

Hey Tim, I was trying to articulate this very view to someone yesterday. But you did it far more elegantly. Well said, thank you. Indigo

Tim F said...

Sorry, Anon, I didn't mean to suggest that child abuse had been eradicated - just look at the Rochdale case. But I can't see how something like the Savile affair could happen again in a high-profile institution such as the BBC. And that's as much down to changing attitudes in society as to legislation, governance, technology, etc.

True, Pat. Every time someone is dismissive about feminism, I ask them whether people should be paid differently according to their gender for doing the same job. It seems such a no-brainer now, but 40 years ago...

Tim A: it's OK, hers was one of the harmless quirks. And I'm sure it wasn't true. Oh, Sue Lawley, I forgot her.

Very good point, Hill Mouse. I've met Boris, albeit briefly, and he's very charming, funny, good company. The problem comes when people think that makes him capable of running a country. The would-I-want-to-have-a-pint-with-this-person? test only takes you so far.

I took a quick straw poll to see how we could define JS's appeal to an American, Pearl: think of a cross between Casey Kasem, Pee Wee Herman and Willy Wonka.

That's right, Malc. At least the nation's spelling has improved.

I think there's a lot of collective denial at work here Zoe. Plenty of people were genuinely described to discover that Liberace or Freddie Mercury were gay, for example. (Not suggesting that gay = paedophile, of course, just an example of how an aspect of one's life can be hidden in plain view.)

I'm not sure that anything I've said is original, Indigo. Just some random observations.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, yes, I adore Esther Rantzen but she should indeed be questioning herself. She helped make it impossible for parents (very much including all the good ones) to be able to administer a disciplinary slap to a wayward child but she and her colleagues were unable (or unwilling?) to stop somebody like Savile. I dunno, I'm completely outside the media world - maybe it's a parallel universe...

shtove said...

I think the point is being missed.

It's not about cultural change brought about by feminism, or the cover-up culture of the newspapers, but about institutional abuse: NHS, BBC etc. The bigger the institution the bigger the opportunity for continuing abuse.

As for the impact of feminism on wages, maybe the point is that it helped equalise real wages at a lower level.

Robin Tomens said...

Well said, Tim. The bleatings of most media scum on this subject amount to pure hypocrisy.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

A very thought-provoking piece. I too have expounded at length about the Savile saga. I think he has betrayed all children who looked up to him or watched his shows and am jolly glad my constant stream of letters didn't land me on Jim'll Fix It, much though I don't doubt the majority of participants probably weren't abused and had a good time.

Anonymous said...

What are the rumours concerning Morrissey?

Zoompad said...

I also had a run in with St Johns Ambulance, my son used to go to Badgers and while I was going through the Secret Family Courts (falsely accused of having Parental Alienation Syndrome, which was invented by an American paedophile called Richard Gardner, one of the men who set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation) I got more and more run down, finally became very ill, I was getting every virus there was because the vile way I was being treated in the Secret Family Courts just wears down your health. Anyway, I had to go to an Awards Ceremony with my son, the room was full of senior St Johns Ambulance staff, but I became so ill that I had to leave early. A couple of days later I was taken into hospital with pneumonia. When I got out, I was so very very angry to find that St Johns Ambulance staff were circulating a vicious rumour that I had left the Awards Ceremony because I was drunk! I really didnt know a person could get drunk on cups of tea!!!!!

Charles Edward Frith said...

Jimmy Savile was an MI5 asset and history will show this comment to be accurate. MI5 ran paedophile brothels in Kincora boys home and Wrexham to blackmail VIP politicians. This is a matter of record but I don't want to outline how it all works as the British are more at home with the trivial and the prurient.