The scandal surrounding the sexual exploits of Jimmy Savile is already about much more than what did, or did not, happen in BBC green rooms decades ago.
Police are investigating 120 accusations of sexual molestation against Savile who, until a month or two ago, was a certified national treasure (although those of us too young to have seen the man in his prime have always regarded him as being a little on the creepy side – not a good way for us to win an argument with our elders and betters).
Police investigations are rumoured to stretch away from Savile’s media career, into his much-touted charitable work. He volunteered for many years at Broadmoor psychiatric prison and Stoke Mandeville hospital in Aylesbury – both gigs appearing to have come with a free run of the place.
The allegations of former patients and inmates are especially disturbing; the police have described him as a predatory sex offender, which – if much of this stuff is at all true – is surely the understatement of the year. Savile seems to have a had a knack of worming himself into positions in which (very) young women (or boys) would be available to him, one way or another, in a manner – fittingly for a West Yorkshireman – reminiscent of the sociopathic sexual sadists that populate David Peace novels.
Savile, of course, is not around to defend himself any more – but the public indignation is building up regardless. His family have removed his headstone from his resting place in Scarborough, and barely a day goes by without another putative victim going public with her or his story. Savile liked them young – and the implied pattern of behaviour suggests that he liked them vulnerable as well, with nowhere to hide.
In the absence of the man himself, the institutions which gave him the opportunity to satisfy his cravings are open to attack. This is very likely to result in substantial civil claims against the BBC and the NHS.
Certainly, the BBC has hardly covered itself in glory in the past few weeks. Conflicting statements from current and former top brass paint a picture of desperate back-covering exercises. The mysterious disappearance of a mooted Newsnight segment on the affair has raised a few eyebrows, as well as speculation over bureaucratic interference. After vacillating over setting up an internal inquiry, director general George Entwistle and chairman Chris Patten now apparently have several in the works.
All this fits into an all-too-recognisable pattern at the corporation. Budget cuts have translated into redundancies and downsizing at the base, but have accelerated the process of bureaucratic hypertrophy in its middle and upper echelons. Whole layers of middle management apparently exist just to kick consultancy jargon from one office to another. The new broadcasting house has far better facilities for these types than for lowly programme-makers and researchers. The gravy train rolls on – until a crisis hits, and the BBC’s inertia becomes painfully obvious to everyone.
On the other hand, it is worth asking why this so rapidly became a story of institutional failures at the BBC. It is quite correct, on one level, to rise above the increasingly turgid ‘monster paedo sex fiend’ clichés that surround cases like this; questions are being asked about the institutional basis for these crimes, for once. By the same token, however, we need to ask: why this time? The answer is: because it’s the BBC.
Take the Daily Mail’s provocation: put Lord Justice Leveson on the trail of Jimmy Savile! As wiser commentators have pointed out, this takes care of two problems for editor Paul Dacre. Firstly, it is an opportunity to hit out at Leveson. When Leveson is inevitably not called to do the job, the way is open for Dacre to decry the liberal establishment’s kid-glove treatment of the BBC, as opposed to its spectacular purge of the gutter press. Dacre is not expected to get out the other side of Leveson without a serious judicial reprimand at the very least: the judge is certainly not impressed by his mendacious testimony, routine use of newsroom bullying and aggressive hatchet-job style of journalism.
The BBC, conversely, is a strategic rather than a tactical enemy. The Mail has always had it in for the ‘Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation’: when it is not guilty of ‘blatant leftwing bias’, it is too much the representative (however clumsy) of a cultural modernity at odds with the more properly Reithian patrician values that appeal so viscerally to Mail-readingpetty bourgeois enragés.
The Mail’s Beeb-baiting is by turns hysterical (the ‘communist conspiracy’ theory of public-service broadcasting is never far from the surface) and hypocritical. The hypocrisy is best exemplified by the last chance Dacre got to really twist the knife – so-called ‘Sachsgate’, which saw asinine twits Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross leaving lewd comments on Andrew Sachs’s voicemail about the latter’s granddaughter.
Yet it is still to a certain extent an honest vendetta. For the Murdoch press, it has always primarily been a matter of cold, hard cash at the end of the day; the BBC is a serious competitor to Rupert Murdoch’s media empire on many (if not all) fronts, still a relatively trusted source of TV news and a website of first resort for the same purpose. Organisations like the BBC may not get to set the news agenda in the way that the press do; but enough faith is generally put in the innumerable compliance and balance policies at work in the corporation that is speaks with a greater level of authority than Murdoch’s Sky News.
Savile, then, is a gift to both Dacre and Murdoch. Both would shrink from the accusation that they were using this affair as a cover for a base war of position in the media; but the rightwing press simply has too much form on this point for any other interpretation to be possible.
There is another, underlying falsehood – while poking at an institution like the BBC is closer to a serious perspective on the Savile scandal than we might expect, it is still too small a frame for the story.
We should first return to the point that all this has come out only now that Jimmy Savile is dead. It stretches the bounds of comprehension that there were not women prepared to go public at an earlier date; but then that is par for the course in Britain – a country with such punitive libel laws that there is actually a highly profitable ‘libel tourism’ industry running in London.
It would not be difficult for Jimmy Savile to silence his victims – and any newspaper that threatened to print their accusations – with heavy-handed legal threats. The burden of proof would be on the papers. Where to get proof? It is quite clear that the BBC was covering for behaviour which at least parts of its bureaucracy was aware of. It is clear, moreover, from the track records of NHS organisations in silencing and harassing whistleblowers that in that organisation too the careers of highly-paid managers come before the wellbeing of patients. It would be naive to imagine that the suits at Stoke Mandeville were above burying the truth.
In those circumstances, it would be a victim’s word against Savile’s – in circumstances rigged in favour of the latter. Add in the utterly callous attitude to rape victims typical of the police force and justice system of the time, 20 to 40 years ago, when most of the abuse is alleged to have taken place, not to say the macho, old-boys-club character of the establishment (and the casual misogyny of much of the media), and you have an insurmountable struggle for the victims.
Jimmy Savile is the entire establishment’s dirty little secret. All sections of our appointed superiors have something to be embarrassed about – not least because all the problems raised, from the legitimised intimidation that is libel law to the routine failures to protect vulnerable people in psychiatric and medical care, are still with us to one degree or another.
From that angle, it is very positive that these women are starting to tell their stories. This is one skeleton in the establishment closet long overdue a good airing, and it will be disturbing but interesting to see where the hundred and one inquiries lead – and what they show us about this sick society.
The above article first appeared in October 18 issue of the British Weekly Worker paper.