Savile: the mad hunt for a conspiracy of witches

With its contagion of accusation and counter-accusation, the Savile scandal has exposed the Salem-style irrationalism of the modern elite.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

With each passing day – hour, in fact – the Jimmy Savile scandal looks more and more like a modern-day version of the hysteria that gripped seventeenth-century Salem, when a small town in Massachusetts became convinced that it had witches in its midst. Since the first accusations of child abuse were made against the late BBC entertainer in an ITV documentary on 3 October, Britain’s chattering classes have become consumed by a witch-hunting mentality, with almost every respectable institution, from the BBC to the NHS to the child-protection industry, finding itself dragged into a vortex of Savile-related suspicion and rumour, accusation and counteraccusation.

So as in Salem, Savile-obsessed modern Britain has its alleged conspiracy of witches, in the shape of Savile himself, described by the Guardian as ‘the devil who tries, and succeeds, in passing himself off as a saint’, alongside other named or hinted-at individuals. Together, these ‘blood-curdling child catchers’ (Guardian again) apparently ‘stalked children’s homes and hospitals… preying on the most vulnerable victims one could imagine’. They were part of a ‘child sex ring’, say the tabloids, which ‘lurked’ deep within ‘the corporation’ (the BBC). Savile was even worse than JK Rowling’s Voldemort, journalists tell us; he was a beast more wicked than could have been imagined by ‘even the most gifted weavers of children’s nightmares’.

We also have hysterical, mob-like attacks on the alleged witches, as in Salem. Being dead, Savile can’t be dragged into a showtrial and hanged, as the witches of Salem were, but he can be subjected to a posthumous trial by media, in which every claim made about him is instantly taken as good coin. His former home and grave have been attacked by whipped-up, witch-fearin’ individuals: the plaque on his house in Scarborough was daubed with the words ‘paedophile’ and ‘rapist’, and according to one broadsheet report, serious feminists had a serious discussion about ‘desecrating Savile’s grave’ – an eerie modern echo of the respectable women, turned wild-eyed, who joined in Salem’s hunt for witches. Savile’s gravestone has now been dismantled (and ‘ground to dust’); a statue of him has been taken down in Glasgow; and in response to the ‘cesspit of claims’ made about him, the BBC has purged from the historical record a 1985 edition of Desert Island Discs on which he featured. Britain must be scrubbed clean of all trace of this terrifying evildoer.

And in the most striking echo of Salem, the initial fingerpointing at Savile has descended into fingerpointing at others; at everyone; at those who knew about his abuse but said nothing, and those who didn’t know about it but should have; against the ‘complicit’, the ‘silent’, the ‘enablers’, the ‘accomplices’. In The Crucible, his 1952 play about the Salem witch trials which was also a not-so-veiled attack on the anti-Communist McCarthyite witch-hunts of 1950s America, Arthur Miller sought to capture the ‘contagion of accusation and counteraccusation’ that gripped Salem; the ‘ritualistic, public denunciations’ of witch-like behaviour which led to almost everyone becoming an object of suspicion (1). And so it is in the Savile era, where huge chunks of the ruling classes are falling victim to a contagion of blame and denunciation.

The speed with which even much-respected institutions have been sucked into the Savile suspicion is startling. In less than a fortnight, accusations of child abuse against Savile have transmogrified into accusations of institutional corruption and sexism against the BBC; accusations of neglect against the NHS (at whose hospitals Savile is alleged to have fondled girls); and accusations of complicity against doyens of the child-protection industry, including Esther Rantzen of ChildLine.

So the BBC is now depicted as a nest of ‘enablers’ of child abuse, as an outwardly respectable institution that has a perverted core, with rumours that ‘BBC employees were helping to procure underage girls for Savile’. The BBC has kickstarted two internal inquiries, one into the claims about Savile’s behaviour, and one into itself, into its entire ‘culture and practices’ during the time Savile worked there – from the 1960s to the 1990s.

The infection of Esther Rantzen with the contagion of Savile suspicion shows how even trusted figures of authority can fall victim to Salem-style hysteria. Rightly or wrongly (mostly wrongly in my view), Rantzen has for years been treated as an authoritative, trustworthy voice on the issue of child protection. Yet now, in the space of days, she has become cloaked in suspicion, ritualistically denounced in front-page tabloid exposés as being ‘complicit’ in Savile’s crimes for her failure to act on rumours about his behaviour. In a sense, she’s being eaten up by the child-abuse panic she herself did much to ignite over the past two decades. But this is not the time for Schadenfreude. That even Rantzen can be so severely rattled in this fashion shows that no person or institution, no established norm, is safe when an hysterical hunt for ‘evildoers’ and ‘child catchers’ is thoughtlessly unleashed by the elite.

The most dramatic fall from grace – or descent into what the BBC calls the ‘cesspit of claims’ – belongs to the NHS. Three months ago, the NHS was being celebrated at the Olympics opening ceremony as Britain’s greatest-ever creation. Dancing nurses were shown protecting pyjama-wearing urchins from Voldemort and other evil entities. But now, for allegedly allowing or turning a blind eye to Savile’s ‘stalking’ of hospitals and his ‘preying’ upon ‘the disabled and the brain-damaged’, the NHS is Voldemort – or it is at least being discussed in the same breath as Voldemort, in the same breath as Savile’s allegedly Voldemort-style, industrial-scale abuse of children, which was apparently worse than anything dreamt up by ‘even the most gifted weavers of children’s nightmares’. And so, one by one, cornerstone institutions of the modern British elite – the NHS, the Beeb, the child-abuse industry – fall into the cesspit of suspicion surrounding Savile, pushed there by the very people who normally sing the praises of such institutions. Nothing and no one, it seems, can escape the scorched-earth consequences of what Arthur Miller described as that contagious, witch-fearing process whereby ‘people are torn apart, their loyalty to one another crushed’ (2) – which took hold in the witch panic of seventeenth-century Salem, in the Communist panic of 1950s America, and now in the paedophile panic of modern Britain.

What is going on here? How, in less than a fortnight, have claims about the historical behaviour of one dead man given rise to handwringing about widespread institutional corruption and to claims that ‘evil’ is at large in our society and communities? Clearly, this is about more than Savile. We need to distinguish between what Savile is alleged to have done, which sounds pretty sordid, and what Savile has become in public discussion over the past two weeks: a metaphor, a symbol of corruption, an archetypal, almost caricatured paedophile, on to which the opinion-forming classes can project their misanthropic suspicion and distrust of institutions and people and pretty much everything.

One of the most striking things about the Savile hysteria is the explicit attempt to make the opportunistic behaviour of a handful of individuals sound like something structured, organised, a ‘ring’. Just as the eccentric behaviour of girls in Salem was held up as evidence of the existence of a coven of witches, so the alleged sordid behaviour of Savile and others is discussed as a ‘sex ring’. Likewise, everything from sexist language at the BBC to Savile’s alleged rape of a young girl, everything from Savile’s ‘wandering hands’, where he rested his hands on a girl’s ‘shoulder, back, arm for two, three or four seconds too long’, to his alleged abuse of a brain-damaged girl, is now lumped together as part of his ‘paedophilia’. It seems everything from saying ‘nice tits’ to a female DJ to hugging a 14-year-old girl too tightly on Top of the Pops to having sex with someone under 16 can now all be packaged up as evildoing, as child abuse. The conflation of very different kinds of behaviour, and the branding of them as part of a conscious, coven-like determination to do evil and corrupt youth, speaks to a pretty see-through attempt to depict Savile’s alleged crimes as evidence of a sinister streak coursing through every institution and through society itself. One piece on Savile quotes Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner, as saying: ‘There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.’

There it is; this is where we get to the rotten heart of the Savile hysteria. The Savile story is really a vessel for the cultural elite’s perverted obsession with child abuse, and more importantly its belief that everyone is at it – that in every institution, ‘town, village and hamlet’, there are perverts and innocence despoilers, casually warping the next generation. In modern Britain, the figure of The Paedophile has become the means through which the misanthropes who rule over us express their profound fear and suspicion of adults in general, and also of communities and institutions – even of the institutions they hold dear, such is the self-destructive dynamic triggered by the unleashing of the Salem ethos. If Savile had never existed, the chattering classes would have had to invent him, so perfect an encapsulation is he of their degenerate view of the whole of adult society today.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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