The savaging of Jimmy Savile
The only beneficiary of the accusations against Savile is the suspicion-spreading child-protection industry.
No one ever thought that TV and radio superstar Jimmy Savile, who died in November last year, was your run-of-the-mill, ordinary type of bloke. For a start, he looked ridiculous. He insisted on wearing shiny tracksuits at all times, he sported a sheet of platinum hair, wore rose-tinted sunglasses, and was afflicted with an excess of jingy-jangly jewelry. And it wasn’t just his appearance that set him apart. He had standout verbal tics, too, be it his proclivity for yodelling or his fondess for repeating nonsense phrases. He was never less than eccentric.
Yet throughout his career, which encompassed a 20-year stint regularly presenting UK chart show Top of the Pops and the iconic kids programme Jim’ll Fix It, Savile’s weirdness was accepted. It was part of his charm, his appeal. Over the past few years, however, that strangeness has lost its lustre. It has transmuted into something sinister. His eccentricity, his weirdness has become nothing less than a sign of Savile’s malevolence, an index of the extent to which we ought to believe him to have been a child abuser.
Tonight on ITV1, another nail is to be hammered into Savile’s recently buried coffin. It comes in the form of Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, a documentary which alleges that Savile was a routine sex abuser of young girls, some as young 12. The evidence for the claims is not watertight, but it does sound persuasive. Four women have been prepared to give their testimonies to the programme, and it has now emerged that as recently as 2007, Surrey police interviewed Savile under caution about allegations that he abused young girls at Duncroft Approved School in Staines. At the time, the Crown Prosecution Service deemed there to be insufficient evidence to take the case further. Now Savile is dead, such qualms as ‘insufficient evidence’ can be brushed aside.
Yet it is difficult to work out what good can come of publicly sifting through the detritus of this dead man’s tawdry life. Savile himself will neither be able to respond to the charges, nor be held to account for his actions. Not only can you not slander the dead – you cannot punish them either. And as for the alleged victims, how does this revisiting of past experiences help them? Given the uncertainty that will always cling to the case of Savile, his putative victims’ claims will never be entirely vindicated. And encouraging these now grown-up women to still think of themselves so many years on as Savile’s victims will do no one any good.
In fact, the real beneficiaries of this cheap obsession with a dead man’s alleged exploits appear to be those who want us to believe the worst of people. That, after all, seems to be the message we are being encouraged to take away from these sordid revelations. Boiled down, it amounts to the following: anyone, from the charming to the popular, ought to be regarded as a possible child abuser. Suspecting other people, thinking ill of other people, is no longer a vice for the child-abuse obsessed; it is the supreme virtue: the paedophile could be anyone.
Broadcaster Esther Rantzen, founder of ChildLine, has expressed this message the loudest, stating in the Daily Mail that ‘in some way we colluded with him as a child abuser’. In other words, ‘we’, from those who worked with him to the public who liked to watch him, let him get away with it. We didn’t suspect this eccentric, we encouraged him. A Guardian columnist echoes Rantzen’s sentiment: ‘That’s the truly shocking part of this story – so many people either knew or suspected the fact that Savile was assaulting underage girls but chose to do nothing whatsoever about it.’ And that, the columnist argues, is the moral of the story: we as a society trust too much and suspect too little. ‘Throughout society’, she writes, ‘there is a culture of denial, minimisation and disbelief around child sexual abuse. It would seem that child sexual predators are often better protected than their victims.’
The professional promoter of the child abuse panic, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), has also been characteristically quick to seize upon the Savile stories to complain that, ‘There is still a lot of denial about child abuse’. In the words of the NSPCC’s head of child protection, Chris Cloke, among ‘parties who may have known about [child abuse], or suspected it, there is too often an attitude of not telling because they’re not sure, or it is all rumour…’. In other words, we should be far more comfortable accusing others of abusing children, even it is just a hunch.
Yet why is accusing fellow members of a community of committing child abuse being so gleefully encouraged? Why is so-called ‘awareness’ of child abuse considered to be a sign of progress? And why is disbelief when it comes to the possibility that a fellow adult is a child abuser considered to be regressive? Surely a society in which we tend to trust one another is to be preferred to one in which we suspect others of posing some hidden, possibly child-abusing threat. The obsession with child abuse and paedophiles is truly one of the most retrograde, socially corrosive trends of recent times. In this grim, topsy-turvy moment, distrusting others has come to appear virtuous, while trusting others is presented as folly. Indeed, in recent years, the state has built legislative monuments to mutual suspicion among adults, from the ubiquitous criminal background check demanded of all adults who come into contact with children (launched in 2002) to the Sex Offenders’ Register (introduced in 2003). Both measures encourage us automatically to suspect others of doing harm to children.
And it is this obsession with child abuse, this state-fostered climate in which suspicion of other adults’ motives and intentions is considered every citizen’s duty, which is the real problem here, not some putative conspiracy of silence around child abuse. If true, of course, the allegations involving Savile reveal him to be a pretty repellent individual. But to use the allegations as an excuse to encourage us once more to be more ‘paedophile-aware’, to be more suspecting and less trusting, has far more dangerous ramifications than the actions of one depraved individual.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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