Jimmy Savile at Duncroft: who to believe?

Picture of former Duncroft headmistress Margaret Jones, an elderly white woman in a blue and white striped T-shirt and blue drawstring jeans, standing at her door with a person in front of her taking notesThe past week or so I’ve been following a series of posts by the blogger “Anna Raccoon”, who I earlier came across in her articles about the Court of Protection and her championing of Mark Neary’s cause (Mark Neary being the man whose autistic son was wrongly detained for more than a year for “challenging behaviour” by Hillingdon social services). She is a former pupil at the Duncroft school, the locked boarding school for intelligent but disturbed teenage girls which was supposedly used as a “paedophile’s sweet shop” by the late Jimmy Savile, at the same time as the abuse allegedly happened. She claims that the people who are making the claims were not there at the time, and points to a number of historical inaccuracies such as Savile’s Rolls Royce being the wrong model to have been made by the time some of the incidents happened. She also reported that the former headmistress, Margaret Jones, had been doorstepped by someone from the Daily Mail; I saw an “interview” with her in today’s paper, in which she describes the girls making the claims as “delinquents” who used sex to buy favours from men (Anna Raccoon said she did not actually give an interview, but did answer a couple of questions before spotting a hidden tape recorder). The paper describes her attitude as “cruel” and their picture of her is clearly intended to give that impression, though to me it looks like she was annoyed and suspicious at being doorstepped.

As I’ve said before, I always had doubts about the theory that Savile was never brought to book because he was untouchable. He wasn’t all that famous for the last 20 years or so of his life, and during that time, many men were locked up for historical incidents of sexual abuse often on the basis of a volume of accusations but not a substantial volume of proof. Richard Webster and Bob Woffinden had an article published in the Guardian’s Weekend supplement in 1998, Trawling for Crimes, in which they present their evidence that some long-serving teachers jailed for sexually abusing boys were in fact innocent, and that the police had been trawling for accusations and suggesting to old boys from various homes that they might get money if they make an accusation along the lines of those that had already been made. (Former “Prisoner Ben”, now out on licence, gave an account of such an encounter with trawling police here.) I have my own theory about some of these false accusations: that some of these men may be innocent of sexual abuse but are in fact guilty of physical abuse or other forms of cruelty, but their victims accused them of a more serious crime either to ensure a longer sentence, or to circumvent any “reasonable chastisement” or “that was how things were done then” defence. But I have no doubt that some are also completely innocent.

I do not know who to believe in all of this. I’ve been in a special boarding school myself (not a locked unit), as I have written on a number of occasions. I do not expect any scandal of this sort to happen, partly because nobody famous was poking their nose around, but partly because I never got an inkling of any adult-on-child sexual abuse when I was there (there was plenty of physical violence, and some boy-on-boy sexual harassment). There was one member of care staff (sacked in 1990) who displayed an inappropriate degree of favouritism towards a boy in the year above mine (who was himself one of the harassers, and also a minor bully), but the suggestion of a sexual relationship is just something that appears whenever two males get too close in an environment like that, or even in the wider world sometimes. George Michael used the same suggestion to describe the relationship between Bush and Blair in the video to his song Shoot the Dog.

I think it inappropriate that the journalists out to find a scandal at the BBC did not investigate whether the women making the claims are of present good character, because a school of that nature will inevitably take in some who are not, and might well turn out some who are not, and who have one ulterior motive or other for making these claims (a grudge against an unrelated matter, or for their subsequent unhappiness even long after leaving, for example). The former director of Newsnight was roundly criticised for backtracking on an investigation into Savile’s alleged crimes on the grounds that the evidence was “just the women”, but that is actually a good reason to question the veracity of a story, even if not to entirely disbelieve it. A bunch of people saying something is true does not make it true. It should go without saying that the time just after a celebrity’s death is not the right time to run a documentary exposing accusations about their behaviour.

The Mail’s characterisation of Jones as cruelly dismissing the women’s claims indicates that they have no interest in challenging the dominant narrative: that Savile was allowed into places where girls should have been safe (and where they had no way of getting out) and abused them and was protected by staff, and by a perception of him as a saint and perhaps a reliance on his financial largesse. There also seems to be a sense that we should “believe the children”, but it’s not “believing the children” to believe adults who are making claims about things that happened when they were children 30 or 40 years ago. As previous sexual abuse cases demonstrate, we have no problem with that. We have a problem with believing those who say they were assaulted recently, often with much better evidence than in these historical cases.

On the other hand, Jones maintains that the girls could have come to her at any time and told her that Savile had abused them and that the fact that they didn’t do that at the time proves that the claims they make now are not true. The problem is that many children and adolescents fear people in authority, and may have been under the impression that to complain about an adult in a tone of distress, or displaying the level of respect appropriate for a common criminal, would have been taken for rudeness or insolence and been brushed off equally rudely, or they would have been punished. I don’t know if that was ever put to Jones, but it may have been in the girls’ minds if they had thought to complain. She also says that she does not remember the names of some of the girls alleged to have complained of the abuse (and Anna Raccoon said Jones had told her on the phone that the interviewer presented a list of first names, but not full names). I also hesitate to believe anyone who says that a school where there has been a scandal was really a good school and the complainers are lying or whatever, because I was at a bad school, I said so publicly, and I was called a liar myself (and a “f**ked up little Islamist”, a “waste of space” and various other things) by other boys who had better memories, by virtue of being further up the pecking order. Bullies often don’t think they’re bullies, just that their victims really are little shits, and they don’t like it if someone tries to kick their house of cards down, even decades later. I wasn’t at Duncroft, and I don’t know why it worked out better for Anna Raccoon than for some of the other girls who were there at the same time or later.

Of course, the Savile story is now bigger than the Duncroft aspect, and there are a large number of people both in the media and in the parts of the health service he patronised who have come forward to say that he used to grope women and girls he came into contact with. The claims, of course, will never be tested in a court of law, so the media will work on the natural assumption that at least some of them are true. Some good has come out of this scandal, such as an exposure of the “gropie culture”, as Janet Street-Porter called it, in the light entertainment section of the media in particular, but an awful lot of bad, including the closure of two charities Savile founded (they said last week that the publicity about Savile had led to a surge in appeals for their money, but perhaps that was not matched by a surge in donations), and possibly the rise in suspicious attitudes, particularly towards men when they are dealing with vulnerable people of any sort (and more so when they are well-known or not doing it for money). I read a blogger yesterday calling this one of the biggest paedophile scandals in British history, but so far, it’s just a farrago of unproven accusations about things that happened decades ago, mostly at the hands of a now dead man. These kinds of accusations can easily lead to unfairly broken reputations and to innocent people spending years in prison. It would be good to see media culture reformed to get rid of the sexism and exploitation, rather than to drag people’s names through the mud on the basis of rumours and unproveable accusations from people with a grudge, or who want money.

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