Jimmy Savile: the benefit of hindsight

Picture of Jimmy Savile, an old white man wearing pink-tinted glasses, a red string vest and a luminous green tracksuit, with a chunky gold bracelet on his right arm and a glass in his left, and a cigar in his mouth.I watched Wednesday night’s Exposure documentary in which the claims that have been made about his molestation of young girls in the BBC studios and at a special boarding school in Surrey in the 1960s and 70s were aired. Of course, the claims were aired at probably greater length in the media over the past four days than they were in the programme, which went out at 11:10pm — the Guardian’s reviewer said that going out at such a time on ITV in his lifetime would have represented career death for him — but it gave some of the claims greater impact to see the people making them in person. The scandal has quite a number of lessons for how we deal with vulnerable children, particularly those in residential care, but it has also led to an outpouring of nonsense by some feminists, who have taken to throwing the word “rapist” around at various early rock stars.

I was initially sceptical about the claims, because the notion that Savile was all-powerful throughout his life are simply not true: in the past 20 years, at least, he was an ageing has-been although he still ran his charity marathons and I once saw him on TV showing off his gold lamé tracksuits to prove what a ‘chav’ he was (this was when chav-talk was all the rage, so it must have been round about 2005). On top of this, rather a number of middle-aged and old men have been imprisoned for historical cases of sexual abuse during this period, usually in special schools and care homes, on considerably less evidence than it would take to convict someone of a recent sexual assault (as Bob Woffinden and others have pointed out, a volume of similar accusations is often treated as corroboration when they all might be false). He does not appear to have been a prolific abuser, the last claim relating to incidents in the early 70s, and the description of it suggested that Savile got a thrill from danger, choosing to abuse the girls surreptitiously in front of other girls, or behind a curtain at the BBC studio (rather than a locked door). Various things he said and even pictures of him are now being re-interpreted as if they always showed he was a pervert to anyone who cared to look closely enough, but it seems nobody who saw them at the time thought that. They appear that way now, only with hindsight.

Still, his behaviour went far beyond the usual rock-star sleaze of the age, and the revelations are still somewhat relevant because of what they show about the way others in the entertainment industry, not to mention the school system, looked the other way despite Savile’s obvious preferences. One of the two women who had been in the “approved school” at Duncroft, near Staines, in the 1970s said that she had been molested by Savile in his caravan in the school grounds, and when she fought back, she was dragged out by two members of staff, and locked in a padded cell for two days until she agreed to stop saying such “filthy” things about “Uncle Jimmy” who did so much good for the school, supposedly. Savile had a lot of money to throw around and there was always the threat that the money he donated to institutions like Duncroft and the Stoke Mandeville hospital (for spinal injuries) would dry up if his image should be tarnished. Doubtless, the staff at Duncroft knew that finances might be a whole lot tighter without Savile’s largesse. But they also believed that his presence there was a privilege for them and the girls, and gave them opportunities that girls in similar institutions did not have.

I was in a special school myself — not that one obviously, as it was a girls’ school, but like Duncroft, my school sold itself as being for those with high academic ability but with emotional and behavioural problems. Unlike Duncroft, it was not at all secure and boys could and did run away (I did, twice), and many boys were in care but none were sent there on court orders because of criminal convictions (though some did have them). We were often lectured about how tight finances were, particularly as numbers fell (there was no first year for an entire year, and a joint first and second year the year after that). When the school was about to close, a member of staff told us that the school had failed because the owners had “pocketed all the profits” rather than investing them in the school. They certainly didn’t invest in decent staff, quite a few of which were every bit as delinquent as the boys and seemed to have been recruited down the pub.

That the school was so desperate for money that it opened its doors to Savile and closed its ears to the girls’ protestations that he was abusing them says much about the way the school, and perhaps others like it, were run at that time. Was it that the government department that ran it (first the Home Office, then the Department for Social Services) was not funding it adequately, or was it being poorly managed? It is fairly well-known that institutions for the disabled and mentally-ill were also run-down places where people were often not afforded respect or dignity, so perhaps it was not a case of the government not having the money, but of the improvement of these places not being a high priority (even when royalty were consigned to them, as in the case of the Bowes-Lyon sisters) — they could be run on a minimum of finance, so they were. If the government is to act as carer or parent, it must do the job properly, by spending enough money as to make the institutions it runs fit and pleasant places to live, and audit them so that money is not being wasted that could be spent on basic living costs or leisure — and for people who are prevented from working, they need something to fill their time — so that they are not left to the “generosity” of predators like Savile. However, I believe this affair also demonstrates that we should not even think of returning to the days of institutions, because they involve separating a vulnerable person from their family members who are often the best, and most motivated, advocates for their needs, when there is no need to do so.

I have seen some rather ridiculous commentary on this case both in the mainstream media and the blogosphere. From the former, Cristina Odone in her blog on the Telegraph’s website repeatedly compares the silence over Savile to the treatment of Catholic priests who were accused of abusing children (more of the same here). The obvious difference is that the priests involved (and other Catholic ‘religious’) were in a position of trust over the children in a way that Savile was not — he saw the children only occasionally, while the priests, ‘brothers’ and ‘sisters’ saw them regularly (sometimes as their main carers), were in a position of authority and trust, and were not worldly entertainers but figures of religious piety who were under a vow of chastity. They were also protected by other figures of authority in the same hierarchy which was entrusted with the care and education of children — not by other worldly entertainers who never claimed to be paragons of virtue. So the comparison is quite ridiculous.

Another source of ridiculous commentary has been the feminist blogosphere, which cast the net wider and called a number of other contemporary rock figures ‘rapists’ because of their carrying-on with ‘groupies’, many of them underage. This article by “SGM” points the finger at John Peel, and other articles have named David Bowie and Jimmy Page among others. SGM quotes at length from an article from 1999 by Julie Burchill, and calls his antics ‘rape’ on the grounds that “14 year olds are not competent to consent to sex with an adult man”, which may well be why it was illegal even then, but it was not called rape because it is not. (In fact, the law at the time made it a crime for a male to have sex with a female that age, even if he was younger than she was. This was only changed with the 2003 Sexual Offences Act. ‘Statutory rape’ is an American legal term, not a British one despite being used in the British press in relation to Savile.) What we have heard about Savile should highlight the difference between child abuse and immoral, sleazy behaviour: Savile made sexual advances to girls he knew would not want them, openly using them for his own sexual gratification without any pretence of romance, and went into at least one special school where he enjoyed a literally captive audience to do the same. He assaulted and harassed girls. The others being accused — who were young men then, remember, not the old men they are now, if still living — simply took advantage of sex that was on offer from girls and young women who had chosen to be there and wanted it. Immoral and irresponsible, yes, but not rape, and they weren’t in a position of responsibility.

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