Untouchable: Jimmy Savile
Sir Jimmy Savile, who spent forty years carefully cultivating his celebrity-status, would have no doubt been delighted to find that after his death he’s taking up more column inches than at any other time in his glittering career.
But the subject of his posthumous notoriety is certainly not as he’d have planned it.
Since ‘Exposure’, the ITV documentary into Savile’s alleged abuse of young girls aired on Wednesday night, more and more women are coming forward saying the star groomed and assaulted them as children.
Who could have guessed that the broadcasting legend could be de-throned quite so spectacularly by claims of child sex offences? Well, quite a few people as it happens. Celebrities from Paul Gambaccini to Janet-Street Porter have spoken out, saying that Savile’s abuse of young girls was an open secret at the BBC.
Esther Ranzen, broadcaster and founder of child safety charity Childline has spoken of her distress at hearing accounts from women who say they suffered at the hands of Savile. “In a funny way we all colluded with this, didn’t we?” she says.
Former BBC radio producer Wilfred De’Ath doesn’t share Ranzen’s feeling of collective culpability. De’Ath speaks to ‘Exposure’ about being confronted first hand with Savile’s behaviour towards young girls. He describes meeting Savile in a Chinese restaurant with a girl he guesses was 12 years old:
”I asked him, where did you pick her up and he said ‘Top of the Pops’. I found it rather demeaning to have to talk to him in front of a little girl like that. The next morning I phoned and he was obviously in bed with this young girl, in fact he told me he was in bed with her. And I had to rather demean myself and say hello to her, and she said ‘hello, hello Mr Producer’”.
This account is startling not just for its insight into Savile’s sexual habits, but for the fact that he didn’t try to hide his behavior, presumably because he didn’t have to.
When the presenter of ‘Exposure’, Mark Williams-Thomas asks De’Ath why he thought the girl was 12 he replies, “well I’ve had two daughter so I know about little girls”.
De’Ath has had half a century to reflect on what he witnessed and since had two daughters of his own. And yet, breathtakingly, it’s never occurred to him that it was the young girl who was being demeaned and not him.
What is clear from De’Ath’s attitude towards the victim, particularly when he mimics her, using the voice of an insufferable cockney waif, is that he considers her unworthy of empathy and protection.
But let’s not be fooled into believing that De’Ath is deviant in his attitude.
De’Ath is symptomatic of a male-dominated media industry where the voices of young women, particularly vulnerable and working class women count for nothing.
The fact that De’Ath spent two years in jail after leaving the BBC for credit card fraud perhaps explains why he speaks so candidly where other more influential media figures with much more to loose continue to play dumb about Savile’s predatory behaviour.
A former Radio One DJ who didn’t want to be named told the Guardian: “It was a unique 25-year period in human history in which it was possible to have sex without endangering yourself and people took advantage”.
And the anonymous DJ isn’t the only person to use cultural relativism to excuse Savile’s alleged abuse.
Alan Leeke was a local reporter in Manchester at the time when Savile was making a name for himself as a celebrated Northern DJ. He says: “In those days you couldn’t tell if a girl was 15, 16, 17. You didn’t ask for a birth certificate in those days….It was the era of free love”.
Free love? Spare me.
The loosening of sexual mores had nothing to do with these reports of abuse: They occurred within a society where young women were still expected to be seen and not heard, at the hands of a man who was supremely powerful, abusing girls who were supremely vulnerable. In this sense Savile’s sexual behaviour was depressingly conservative.
And before we console ourselves that Savile’s alleged abuse and impunity was the product of a bygone era, where sexual morality was as dubious as the wardrobe choices, it’s worth reminding ourselves about the recent abuse scandal in Rochdale which led to nine convictions of men for grooming and abusing young girls.
The men who ran the organised abuse ring where allowed to carry on for so long because when victims did come forward, police and social service didn’t believe them. Police assumed the girls were prostitutes.
To this day, vulnerable teenagers, children in care, girls dismissed as miscreants who don’t fit the mould of the innocent victim, are not being heard. The evidence suggests that Savile, like other abusers, knew which girls were vulnerable and which ones wouldn’t be believed and chose his victims accordingly.
The claims against Savile are particularly alarming because, surely by now ours is a society so alert to the threat of paedophilia that we live in a state of perpetual vigilance, suspiciously eyeing the milkman from our home security systems and demanding enhanced criminal disclosures for every adult that comes within a 10 meter radius of our children?
Isn’t the figure of the eccentric, unmarried child abuser a bogey man so feared we couldn’t miss one skulking in the park at night, let alone prancing across our screens at prime time?
The tabloid press, who display an unwavering commitment to exposing every pervert and paedophile that lurks in the undergrowth, have on this occasion severely let us down.
Street-Porter and Gambaccini have parroted the theory that Savile played the tabloids like a puppet master, threatening to stem the flow of money he raised for hospitals like Stoke Mandeville if they printed claims of sexual abuse.
Is it just me or does this explanation sound completely implausible? Are we to believe that ruthless, hard-nosed journalists vetoed the type of story tabloids dream of, just because they didn’t want Savile’s fundraising to cease? Surely once the litany of Savile’s alleged abuse had broken, his role as charity fundraiser extraordinaire would screech to a grinding halt in any case.
Whatever Sir Jimmy was using as a black mailing chip to dissuade the papers from running the story, it was far more devastating than a threat he’d stop his charity work. The impression we get is of a sinister, deeply entwined relationship between Savile and the tabloids, one which, even in the post-Levenson era, we’ll be lucky to ever uncover.
But for the majority of us who weren’t being directly blackmailed, why were we so easily fooled? Isn’t part of the problem that we make paedophiles into degenerate monsters, ogre-like figures with nothing in common to the people we love and respect?
A national treasure, a charity worker, an emblem of a more innocent age, and a paedophile? To suggest it is heretic. It goes against everything we believe in our guts about child abuse.
In the wake of these revelations an entire media establishment and nation is reeling back in horror with a sense of collective guilt and shame. And let’s hope our period of reflection is meaningful. Because if we’re blind to sexual abuse on our TV screens and in our workplaces, what chance have we of spotting and speaking out against it when it occurs closer to home, in our own lives?