The Savile inquiries: giving truth a bad name

The excavation of the past to ‘uncover the truth’ about Savile is really about looking at history through today’s abuse-obsessed goggles.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics UK

This is not really a story about Jimmy Savile. Nor is it a cautionary tale about institutions such as the BBC covering up the heinous acts of sex offenders. Rather, the Savile scandal is a sordid episode which exposes the moral disorientation of our society. It shows that our society is so ill at ease with itself that it has lost faith in its ability to make sense of the everyday problems it faces. Instead of discussing and clarifying the issues at stake, our society looks for answers and signals from the past. That is why it continually launches inquiries into allegedly scandalous institutions or past events.

From a sociological point of view, the proliferation of scandals that call into question the integrity of key British institutions – ‘cash for questions’, the MPs’ expenses scandal, banking scandals, the phone-hacking debacle, child abuse in the Catholic Church – is not the result of any significant escalation in malevolent or dishonest behaviour. Rather, such scandals are symptoms of a crisis of authority and a severe loss of trust.

In our era, the problem of collapsing trust has become all-pervasive. The loss of trust in authority is not confined to a particular institution or individuals. In recent decades, many of society’s most treasured institutions have experienced a loss of prestige. Scandals have generated widespread questioning of the integrity of the police, the monarchy, the Catholic Church, the banking system, parliament and the media. The persona of Jimmy Savile has become a kind of conduit through which this powerful sense of mistrust spreads to an ever-widening number of institutions.

When prime minister David Cameron and other leading figures instructed the BBC Trust to ‘uncover the truth’ about Savile, what they really meant was that this institution should perform the ritual of self-abnegation. In the modern world, the search for the truth inevitably focuses on the past, because of the profound difficulty of gaining clarity and meaning in the present. The current obsession with inquiries, into everything from Savile to Hillsborough to the Miners’ Strike, really expresses bad faith and an instinct for evasion.

The attempt to ‘uncover the truth’ through mobilising people’s memories invariably invites us to reinterpret past experiences through the prism of present-day preoccupations and values. Mobilising memory in order to find the roots to our current problems somewhere in the past has become a highly respectable, culturally sanctioned activity. This strategy relies on reading history backwards, and encouraging people to make sense of current existential problems by seeing them as part of the damage inflicted by past wrongs and injustices.

The belief that the truth is out there – that is, it is in the past, waiting to be uncovered by an official inquiry – is just that: a belief. The reality is that the answers to the problems of our era will not be found via an archaeological excavation of the past. On the contrary, the project of excavating the past is motivated by an instinct to evade the present, and to seek validation from history for modern dilemmas. The mobilisation of memory is far more about the concerns of the present than it is about discovering the truth in the past. As the psychiatrist Derek Summerfield once wrote, ‘Any act of remembering is interpretative, driven by the concerns or ideas of the present’ (1).

In the Jimmy Savile case, people are actively encouraged to come forward and reinterpret their past experiences in the language of abuse. This means that literally everyone who had contact with this monster is being asked to reflect on their encounter in light of what has been revealed by the media in recent weeks. Moral entrepreneurs underline the gravity of Savile’s wickedness through the metaphor of invisibility. Apparently, behind the carefully constructed mask of sainthood, there lurked the malevolent perpetrator of child abuse. The phrase ‘it’s only the tip of the iceberg’ encourages anxiety and insecurity towards Savile and other alleged ‘predators’ in our society. The NSPCC’s description of Savile as a ‘well-organised and prolific sex offender’ hints that there is more to this affair than the acts of one single pervert. In this twenty-first-century passion play, we are continually being told that there were ‘paedophile rings’ and ‘conspiracies’ organised by powerful men in and around the BBC.

It is a secularised form of witch-hunting, with disinterested science taking the place that religion once played in such hunts. Consider the criminologist who worked on the ITV documentary about Savile, who predicted at the start of October that ‘[within a] week the number of allegations of child sexual abuse [against Savile] will be into three figures’. He added: ‘I am continuing to receive information.’ Not surprisingly, a few days later the Metropolitan Police announced that they were following 400 lines of inquiry. So is the truth finally coming out – or has society become dominated by a misanthropic imagination of mistrust?

The culture of abuse

Back in 1997, when I wrote my first book on the sociology of fear, I argued: ‘The theme of abuse has become one of the most distinct features of contemporary Western culture. The frequency with which the term is used and the growing number of experiences that are defined as abusive are symptomatic of the significance of this artefact of contemporary culture.’ (2)

Even in the late 1990s, it was evident that people regarded one another with a level of suspicion that was historically unprecedented. If parents are continually concerned about the motives of carers looking after their children, and if adults must be vetted by the state before they can come into contact with youngsters, then the following question will always emerge: ‘Who can you trust?’ It is precisely because this has become an unanswerable question that British society will continue to discover more and more Jimmy Saviles.

The current fascination with abuse is not confined to relationships between adults and children. Any interaction that touches on the emotions, or which involves physical or sexual experiences, can be potentially labelled as abusive. There are claims that ‘peer abuse’ is the key problem of our time; others demand action against ‘elder abuse’. And for good measure, the alarm has been raised about ‘pet abuse’ and ‘chicken abuse’. There is little resistance to the depiction of most forms of human relationships as potentially abusive.

The metaphor of abuse has a quasi-religious feel to it, signifying a morally corrupt act which brings about the moral pollution of the innocent victim. The implication is always that, through being abused, a person’s very being is invaded, to the extent that he will never be the same person again. So professionals and experts tell us that acts of abuse inflict a legacy of life-long suffering; they talk about people being ‘scarred for life’ or ‘damaged for life’.

Traditionally, the word abuse meant misuse, improper use, perversion; it also carried connotations of violation, pollution and defilement. In the eighteenth century, the term self-abuse was defined as ‘self-pollution’. In the twenty-first century, the emphasis in discussions of abuse is not on the pollution of the self but on the defilement of others. The main achievement of the abuse narrative is that it has redefined relations of conflict through the metaphor of pollution. Like the effects of toxic waste, the effects of human pollution are long-term, apparently. That is why many believe that the causes of our present-day distress can be located in the distant past. Memory is believed to have the power to discover the truth that evades us in the present, and so the official inquiry becomes the institutional setting through which the ritual of revelation is conducted.

The sordid truth

There is no need for expensive inquiries to establish that Savile was a repulsive individual. His attitude towards other people, particularly towards young people, was never a state secret. His television programmes used salacious gestures and sexual innuendo as a form of entertainment. Given that he embraced the persona of a dirty old man, it would be very surprising if in private he conducted himself with dignity and behaved in an enlightened manner. What distinguished him from other decadent individuals was that he was a powerful and influential individual.

In the 1970s and 1980s, he was tragically turned into a saint by a society that looked to celebrities for moral and social guidance. And now, there is a risk that society will turn the very same individual into the personification of moral transgression. That would be no less a mistake than the previous ill-fated sacralisation of Savile as a national treasure.

Savile and Savile alone was responsible for whatever he did to others. Neither the BBC nor the NHS (in whose hospitals he is said to have abused people) should be held to account for the behaviour of an individual who degraded others. There is no bigger truth waiting to be discovered. Instead of stumbling into the past, it is far better to explore the present and look to the future as a way of confronting the problems of our time. These are problems that we can do something about.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

(1) Derek Summerfield, ‘Childhood, War, Refugeedom and “Trauma”: Three Core Questions for Mental Health Professionals’, Transcultural Psychiatry, September 2000

(2) Frank Furedi, The Culture of Fear: Risk Taking and the Morality of Low Expectations, 1997

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Topics UK


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