People sometimes say that hindsight is a wonderful thing. They’re usually being ironic, because hindsight isn’t all that wonderful, really. All it does is make obvious stuff that ought to have been obvious all along, and usually it does it too late for it to be much use.
I suppose, as with people’s favourite Doctors, you could probably date someone by how they became aware of Jimmy Savile. There will be those from the Sixties who remember him chiefly as a radio DJ and from his appearances on Top Of The Pops. Then those who first encountered him solely on television in the Seventies and the Eighties with Clunk Click and Savile’s Travels and Jim’ll Fix It. And now there will be a new generation – those who know him only as a serial child abuser of a still uncertain but possibly quite staggering scale.
Jimmy Savile died at the end of October last year, two days shy of his 85th birthday. I think it’s fair to say that at the time of his death he was still regarded as something of a legend, a larger-than-life fundraiser and television icon. Reports of his death featured prominently on the news and in the Press, and his funeral was also reported on the news, which does not happen for every television celebrity.
And now, a little less than a year later, he’s in tatters and he seems to be poisoning everything he ever touched.
In truth, I had always found him hard to like. He seemed to me to be all surface, wholly-created, from the ground up. The curious speech patterns, the jangly bling, the eccentric lifestyle. He was an unusual, shiny thing. Of course, unusual and eccentric and hard to like do not automatically make someone a monster. The celebrity world is full of people who are unusual, eccentric, hard to like, and sometimes even shiny. Back when Savile was at the height of his fame and popularity, it was virtually a job description.
Shortly after Savile’s death, a producer on the BBC’s Newsnight programme began work on a piece investigating persistent rumours about the late DJ’s sex life. In 2007, Surrey Police had questioned him about allegations of child sex abuse dating back to the 1970s. In 2008, Sussex Police received an allegation of sexual assault against him, again dating back to the 70s. He was also named during the investigation into the Haute de la Garenne children’s home in Jersey in 2008. None of these allegations led to charges, for one reason or another.
The Newsnight investigation lasted about six weeks. They had a very experienced journalist, Liz MacKean, working on it, they had witnesses who were prepared to come forward on camera and testify to abuse committed on them by Savile. Their editor, Peter Rippon, seemed keen on it.
And then he wasn’t keen on it any more.
And then the item was dropped, and over Christmas 2011 the BBC transmitted a number of programmes celebrating Savile’s life and career.
A couple of weeks ago, ITV broadcast a programme which was what the Newsnight item would, and should, have been, and since then pretty much all we’ve been able to hear is the sound of shit hitting fans. On Twitter, Savile was dubbed, I think by @Neurosceptic, ‘Janglybeast,’ and the name stuck.
In the wake of the programme, more people came forward saying that Savile had abused them. I’m not entirely sure how many we’re up to now – hundreds, certainly. A spokesman for the National Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Children described Savile as ‘one of the most prolific sex offenders’ it had ever come across.
It’s hard to know where to begin to detail the effects of the ITV programme. Myself, I can’t remember another example of someone’s reputation being burned down to the ground so quickly and completely. His ornate headstone was removed and destroyed at the request of his family ‘out of respect for public opinion.’ Two charities associated with him at first decided to change their names, then elected to close because their trustees judged that keeping them open might damage the causes they supported.
It’s the BBC where the effects have been most seismic, though. The storm over the cancellation of the Newsnight piece led to the unusual sight of another BBC programme, Panorama, investigating its sister programme for its failures. The BBC’s cause was not helped by the fact that the Newsnight producer and Liz MacKean, clearly still not pleased at having their work dropped, cooperated fully with Panorama. In recent years the BBC has turned self-flagellation into something of an art form, but this was rather exquisite, even for them.
And it goes on. There seem to have been failures not only at the Beeb but at the Crown Prosecution Service and at the NHS, which seems to have given Savile access to some of the most vulnerable of his victims. Today the BBC’s new Director General, George Entwistle, appeared before MPs at the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I didn’t see his performance, but I doubt it’ll have been enough to save his job.
I find all this odd, because Jimmy Savile has not yet been found guilty of anything. The investigation into the claims about his behaviour is really in its earliest days. I saw the ITV and Panorama documentaries, and the testimony of his alleged victims seems compelling, but television does not have the weight of law. There seems an assumption of guilt which would not have been expressed had Savile still been alive.
In addition, the Commentariat are seizing on the affair to make their own points about what they see as moral laxity or institutional failure or whatever. I’m not going to link to Melanie Phillips’s rant in the Mail blaming the whole thing on 1970s liberal ‘free love’ but I will note that, as far as I recall, having sex with a thirteen year-old girl was illegal even then.
The whole thing’s a mess, obviously. The BBC seems to have failed in a fairly fundamental way, and it seems to have failed chiefly in order to screen a number of laudatory documentaries about Jimmy Savile over Christmas last year, which is baffling. There seems to have been a culture at the BBC which allowed Savile – and possibly Gary Glitter and other celebrities – to abuse young people. Savile appears to have been happily given access by the NHS to some very vulnerable young women. He seems to have been completely flameproof, and the reasons for that will need an investigation of their own and could turn over some very nasty stones. Certainly, according to the Panorama documentary there were people working at the BBC who either knew or had some inkling about his predilections, and nothing was done.
Jimmy Savile was knighted. He mixed with royalty and politicians – he spent every New Year’s Eve for eleven years with Margaret Thatcher at Chequers, and who wouldn’t have wanted to be a fly on the wall there – and even the Pope. He did raise millions for charities, and now some of the charities set up in his name are having to close. His reputation has been destroyed to such an extent that even his headstone is now just a pile of chippings in a landfill, and the terrible things he’s alleged to have done – along with the Corporation’s institutional talent for being its own worst fucking enemy – are rocking the BBC again.
At the moment, it’s impossible to predict how or where this story’s going to end. Certainly the BBC is going to take hits, the extent of which we can’t really say yet. Other organisations will probably have to answer for their actions and their failures, too. There seems no doubt that Jimmy Savile will be found to have carried out many, many attacks on under-age girls and possibly on boys as well. The police have said that their investigations now involve ‘living people.’ According to the Panorama programme one of these is Gary Glitter, and there may be several others. The documentary was very naughty about someone who has already been the target of allegations and denied them. So we have the prospect, maybe, of criminal cases arising from this business, and we’ll have to wait a while for those.
We may, may, discover that the culture at the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s was in fact a very scary thing. And the BBC may never recover from that.