Savile Row

Sir Jimmy Savile
Sir Jimmy Savile (Photo: Beacon Radio)

So a lifetime of thinking there was something wrong about Jimmy Savile finally proved justified. Not that I’m claiming to possess what I have little choice but to call paedo-dar. Would that there were such a thing. I just didn’t like the guy. I’m not sure why – though that cigar didn’t help. There was something about his relentless funny voice and catchphrases. It seemed… I think it seemed a little lonely. Not quite connecting up with other people.

What makes a man want to have sex with adolescents – a fixation on what attracted him at puberty? The envious desire of age to possess youth? I think in large part the answer is simply, because he can. He feels a sexual urge, and an adolescent will allow him to satisfy it because obeying adults is the norm. Paedophilia is less a perversion of sexuality than a failure of conscience, the prioritisation of your pleasure over another’s trust.

Readers in various bits of the world may not have heard much of this story. Savile was a DJ from the UK who became enormously famous in the 70s for a programme called Jim’ll Fix It. Children wrote in with their requests, and the BBC would make them happen. A lot like the Make-A-Wish Foundation, except you didn’t have to be dying to get your reward.

It turns out that you did occasionally have to be molested by Jimmy Savile though.

This all came to a head after he died a year ago. As it happened, an investigative branch of the BBC had been making a programme about rumours of his paedophilia. But the Corporation pulled that – and went ahead with a glowing tribute to the wonderful work he did for many, many children’s charities.

There isn’t too much wrong on the face of that. It’s not a huge lapse in journalistic integrity to give the benefit of the doubt to someone who’s just died. But the BBC had another year after his death to investigate the rumours. And the forty years before. In the end it was rival broadcaster ITV that broke the story, leaving us with the impression that the BBC were unwilling to entertain doubts about one of their own.

You can understand that unwillingness when you think about it. Savile was hardly charismatic, more odd- than good-looking, not really talented in any noticeable way. What made him a star was the big budgets that the BBC spent on programme ideas that gave him a never-ending supply of unsupervised contact with children. It must be hard for the Corporation to get its institutional head around the idea that it spent decades unwittingly but quite literally pandering for a child abuser.

3 thoughts on “Savile Row

  1. (That headline kills.)

    Chris Dillow offers the most cautious defence of the BBC (and by association the complicit NHS staffers and uninterested police forces) that I can understand. Basically probabilities of false rumours affecting innocent people would lead to a culture of ignoring or suppressing claims and rumours, which would lead to real molesters getting by without prosecution. Dillow makes the clarification that in this case the risk calculation wasn’t explicit but rather BBC bosses in the 70s would have said “what if I have it wrong?”.

    The explanation makes sense from an analytical sense but I agree with the comments. One of the things that makes this case baffling is how many accusations were suppressed over a very long period of time. Even if the higher ups are afraid of wrongly destroying Savile’s career* there seem to be so many persistent accusations to warrant a thorough investigation. At what point do you suspect a person instead of shielding them from scrutiny?

    I find the lack of curiosity to be more worrying than anything Our attitudes on illegal sex with adolescents may have hardened compared to what they were in the 70s** but I don’t think these days we’re particularly better at being thorough when the scent of scandal first appears.

    *And here one has to stop and ponder the notion that a man’s profitable and arguably undeserved promotion trumps the physical and mental safety of many young persons. Priorities.

    ** “may” is a key word here. I’m not sure we’re better these days. Sure, sex with underage adolescents is bad in the light of general public discourse, but I am not sure if people in the entertainment industry and positions of influence are much different today when those groupies line up at their doors. Is the rate of occurrence of celebrities having sex with 16 year olds lower today than in 1975?

  2. Well 16 is legal in the UK, both then and now. but I would certainly imagine that the rate of sex with underage victims is lower today if only because the public is so much more wary of it now. Many more people in the 70s would have seen it almost as a victimless crime, a technical breach of the law. Nowadays much fiercer taboos surround the transgression. The consequences of getting caught are surely much more dire.

    You can easily imagine a situation in the 70s where what reports that are made end up on one manager’s desk (or much worse, several different managers’ desks) where they get put in the “Hope this turns out to be nothing” file until that person gratefully moves on to a different position. Being wrong would lead to awful consequences, and being right but unable to prove it would still have awful consequences, There are no direct consequences (to you) if you ignore the situation – or rather, wait for that clinching, indisputable evidence you realistically know is never going to come.

    I think there are better mechanisms in place now, in situations were people have access to children – mandatory reporting of suspected incidents and so on. Organisations are more likely to have clear policies about who needs to be informed and take action. Crucially, there are consequences for ignoring the situation. Not that these are by any means foolproof of course, but I do think it’s better than the 70s.

  3. Well 16 is legal in the UK, both then and now. but I would certainly imagine that the rate of sex with underage victims is lower today if only because the public is so much more wary of it now. Many more people in the 70s would have seen it almost as a victimless crime, a technical breach of the law. Nowadays much fiercer taboos surround the transgression. The consequences of getting caught are surely much more dire.

    You can easily imagine a situation in the 70s where what reports that are made end up on one manager’s desk (or much worse, several different managers’ desks) where they get put in the “Hope this turns out to be nothing” file until that person gratefully moves on to a different position. Being wrong would lead to awful consequences, and being right but unable to prove it would still have awful consequences, There are no direct consequences (to you) if you ignore the situation – or rather, wait for that clinching, indisputable evidence you realistically know is never going to come.

    I think there are better mechanisms in place now, in situations were people have access to children – mandatory reporting of suspected incidents and so on. Organisations are more likely to have clear policies about who needs to be informed and take action. Crucially, there are consequences for ignoring the situation. Not that these are by any means foolproof of course, but I do think it’s better than the 70s.

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