a dirty uncle
Even the mighty BBC, so beloved of Britain’s cultural elite, is impotent in the face of the child abuse panic.
That is the thing about the child abuse panic: it knows no boundaries; it respects no institutions. And now, this product of elite hysteria, fomented in its current form during the 1980s by a band of Satanic-abuse believing government officials, social workers and children’s charities, has slithered its way back into the heart of the British establishment itself.
That’s right, thanks to the scandal around its one-time employee Jimmy Savile, the British Broadcasting Corporation, home of received pronunciation and an acceptable source of national pride for Guardian readers, has been transformed into something positively sinister. When talking about the allegations levelled at Savile a few weeks ago, Labour’s Harriet Harman seemed shaken: ‘What has deepened the revulsion [over Savile] is that this happened at the BBC, an institution so loved and trusted it is known as “auntie”. This has cast a stain on the BBC.’ More recently, UK prime minister David Cameron declared that the BBC has serious questions to answer about Savile. And Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, a former producer and director of current affairs programmes for the BBC, declared that Lord Patten, head of the BBC Trust, and George Entwistle, the BBC’s director general, may have to ‘fall on their swords’.
Given the official opprobrium that has been coming the BBC’s way, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was itself responsible for Savile’s alleged crimes. Which isn’t that far from what it is actually being accused of. For a start, there are now two independent Savile-related inquiries at the BBC. The first will attempt to shed light on why last December’s Newsnight investigation into allegations against Savile was pulled. The second will look at how the BBC handled Savile throughout his career. The suggestion underlying both is that senior figures at the BBC knew what Savile was like and what he was doing, but turned a blind eye, preferring instead to preserve his, and by default the BBC’s, reputation.
All of which ought to beggar belief. I’m not the biggest fan of the BBC, but to suggest that it was, in effect, complicit with Savile just doesn’t ring true. Yes, the BBC employed him; but it didn’t harbour him. Whatever Savile did, he alone was responsible for it. Also, the decision by Newsnight‘s editor Peter Rippon to pull the investigation into the Savile allegations on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence to make the report ‘stand up’ was not without justification. Whether you agree with Rippon or not, it certainly looks like he made a simple editorial decision rather than being part of a conspiratorial plot. To think that BBC director general Entwistle or head of news Helen Boaden, as has been suggested, were so attached to the prospect of a Jimmy Savile special on Boxing Day that they were prepared to suppress one of the year’s biggest news stories sounds as absurd as it almost definitely is.
But that’s what is really striking about the BBC’s Savile imbroglio. Instead of meeting the accusations and innuendo with a confident rebuttal, the BBC has unravelled. Newsnight editor Rippon has had to ‘step aside’, and yesterday director general Entwistle gave a tremulous performance before the House of Commons’ culture, media and sport select committee. He even seemed to accept that abuse used to be endemic across the BBC. ‘I don’t think someone like Jimmy Savile could do what he did without there being a broader cultural problem’, he told the committee, claiming that the ‘criminal allegations of the sort levelled at Jimmy Savile’ and the rumours of ‘sexual harassment’ could be ‘all part of the same culture’. In other words, Savile was not an exception; he was near enough the cultural rule.
Perhaps it was no surprise, given the BBC’s willingness to believe the worst of itself, that its own current affairs show Panorama was this week prepared to give credence to every suspicion and rumour now doing the rounds about the ‘culture of abuse’ at the BBC. It even gave Liz Dux, a lawyer specialising in child abuse cases, a platform to assert that there may have been a paedophile ring within the Beeb - a staggering assertion made all the more so by the BBC’s blithe willingness to accept it as being probable.
The travails of the BBC are not unique, of course. Rather, they are testament to the truly corrosive logic of the child-abuse panic, a miasma of suspicion and fear that has done so much to undermine our communal life, to replace informal relations based on good faith with formally mediated relations based on bad faith. Such a corrosive logic unfolds in the absence of everyday expectations and assumptions about people’s and institutions’ behaviour. In short, we no longer trust them to behave as we might reasonably expect them to. The absence of complete certainty that abuse is not rife is enough for speculation to flourish. Someone might be a football coach or, indeed, an eccentric TV presenter, but we have no way of knowing for certain that they are not a child abuser - and so we are encouraged to be suspicious.
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And it is that omnipresent suspicion, that refusal to treat others in good faith, that is now tearing apart not a working-class community in Cleveland, but an elite institution in the nation’s capital. It is that omnipresent suspicion that allows a Guardian editorial from last week to state that ‘Jimmy Savile was not a one-off’. And it is that omnipresent suspicion that allows various child-protection charities and officials to tell us over and over again that child abuse and neglect are widespread across the UK.
An institution as powerful as the BBC has proved impotent before the logic of suspicion and mistrust which drives the child abuse panic. Now that is something to be worried about.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.