Ow’s about that then!? – reflections on the Savile scandal

The revelations around the apparent career of sexual abuse conducted by Jimmy Savile (involving children, young people, the physically and mentally ill – just about anyone in a power-subordinate position) are horrifying. They’ll prompt widespread institutional and personal soul searching, public apologies and perhaps prosecutions if conspiracy or culpability can be proved. They also touch on issues covered by recent ESRI-based research on the unintended negative consequences of mainstream approaches to child protection and safeguarding, in teaching, childcare and sports coaching (read more about the project here). Mainstream approaches start from the premise that all adults are potential abusers, all children are vulnerable victims, and the result is that intergenerational contact becomes seen as toxic and dangerous rather than positive and nurturing.

The typical safeguarding practices imposed today (eg universal vetting, proscriptive guidelines and regulations) would have done little to prevent Savile’s celebrity career of abuse. There seems to have been nothing official on file, and he did what he did because he wanted to, and he could. What these revelations show is the importance of individual judgement and courage in recognising and responding to abuse; bureaucratic systems are no substitute for people doing the right thing. Indeed if anything, bureaucratic systems make this less likely by giving a false sense of security and interrupting the ordinary routines of adult-child interaction through which we learn how to recognise good and bad intent.

I never understood how someone who seemed to lack human warmth and kept his own persona impenetrable was constructed as a national treasure. Although current media accounts tend to start from the assumption that ‘everyone thought he was marvellous’, I wonder if this is true, and suspect many people outside the bubbles in which the abuse occurred registered something darker and unknowable. Without the media-halo, had that person offered to look after our children, how many of us would have agreed? Personal judgement and integrity remains the best safeguard against the abuser – especially when the abuser is powerful.

Heather Piper

2 thoughts on “Ow’s about that then!? – reflections on the Savile scandal

  1. Just thought it was worth adding this from Simon Jenkins in the Guardian:

    Simon Jenkins
    The Guardian, Tuesday 23 October 2012 19.45 BST

    ‘Jimmy Savile mesmerised the BBC in life, as now he does in death.’

    Is Jimmy Savile and the BBC the biggest story on Earth? Apparently so. Today the British media placed it above Romney versus Obama, above the implosion of Lebanon and above the birth of the world’s largest oil company. Savile was bigger than killer drones in Lincolnshire, bigger than Cameron’s prison policy, bigger than the sensational Birmingham terrorism trial. The mere “standing down” of the editor of Newsnight led the BBC news, as if the corporation had sub-contracted itself to its house journal, Ariel.

    While Britain’s domestic and overseas predicament cries out for clarity from those who purvey public information, the purveyors have lost all proportion. The media has gone collectively tabloid. Savile clearly did terrible things to young people, which authorities failed to notice or investigate. But he is dead, damned, gone for ever.

    Those who promoted and, to some degree, protected Savile, which included the BBC, the NHS and some charities, bear a portion of the culpability for the harm he caused to young people. It is right that they come clean and apologise on Savile’s behalf to those who suffered. It is also right that they review how his doings were concealed and, in the BBC’s case, how a programme about him was not aired. That is happening.

    This does not make the BBC’s director general, George Entwistle, a manager of a paedophile ring, or an appeaser of sexual harassment, as implied by much of today’s questioning by the Commons culture committee. His artlessness seemed honest and was plausible. What appeared a conspiracy over the cancelling of Newsnight was, on his evidence, a regretable cock-up.

    The trouble is that the media hates cock-ups as they dilute guilt. A mistake must be rendered a lie, a cover-up and a crisis, so that the cry can go up for heads to roll. As we saw in the Andrew Mitchell case, when the blood is up, nothing will satisfy the political community but a body in the street. Entwistle gave the appearance of a man who can count angels on the head of a BBC pin, but is at a loss to notice when the pin is skewering him. He now knows what it was like to be James Murdoch in the same seat last spring, giving much the same answers, if less elegantly.

    The BBC is an archetypal case of corporate elephantiasis, an organisation too big to take clear and swift decisions. Its senior managers are lost in a corporate maze of directorates, divisions, Chinese walls and spectrums of delegation. He could not begin to explain how an “editor-in-chief” was not a chief editor, or how the head of television was not, in fact, the head of television. The BBC makes the Vatican seem like a corner shop.

    The corporation may be commended for the vigour with which its disparate empire, from news to Panorama, reported on the miseries of its elders. But if there is one group that BBC journalists hate even more than the Murdoch family, it is their own bosses. For two days, the Today radio programme revelled in their distress. Its presenters could not stop talking about it, hauling in fellow employees to declare the crisis “the worst in 50 years”, and their superiors to be “close to toast”.

    The reality is that the BBC’s survival depends on its self-abasement. Given its unique status as a statutory body and its near monopoly of broadcast news, anything less than total disclosure would be inexcusable. Jimmy Savile mesmerised the BBC in life, as now he does in death. Its metropolitan programmers indulged him outrageously, assuming him to be the authentic voice of working-class eccentricity. Their problem was that they could not tell a Savile from a Cilla Black.

    It is hard to see what real benefit will come from any of this. The case is awash in malice, vilification, exaggeration and litigation. After today’s grilling, the BBC might well decide never again to let a child near a male studio presenter. Hospitals will be advised to recruit chaperones for males in children’s wards. MPs would apparently deplore anyone permitting children near adult strangers.

    Nor are children the only consideration. The Commons today elided paedophilia with sexual harassment. Again the consequence must surely be for the BBC, and any entertainment organisation, to deny lone females entry to men’s dressing rooms unaccompanied, for fear of having “permitted” sexual harassment. This already applies to school and university tutorials, irrespective of the age of those involved.

    Soon doctors, lawyers and priests will have to practise, like the police, in pairs. Responsibility for our behaviour apparently no longer rests on us as individuals but on anyone whom a lawyer can claim was “responsible” for our contact with others. We are no longer our own masters. This is the royal road to Orwellian hell.

    The recent disproportionate treatment of phone hacking is threatening the media, not with the already existing criminal law, but with statutory restrictions on its work in respect of personal (and perhaps corporate) privacy. These restrictions seem likely to be out of all proportion to the harm they seek to avert. The same may now apply after Savile.

    Those running big organisations, in the public and private sectors, face a lethal pincer movement. On the one side is a rising tide of risk aversion, seeping into every factory, office and profession, stifling enterprise, “reassessing” risk, clogging decision. On the other is a fear of what happens should this process fail. Just as the concept of an accident has slid from legal status, so has the “honest mistake”. When Entwistle today admitted and regretted his mistake in not asking in more detail about the Savile programme, his tormenters hardly noticed. Honest mistakes do not exist, being replaced by only the most serious and probably criminal negligence, fit only for the pillory, the stocks or the gallows.

    We now have a new form of accountability, to an “inquiriat”, a cackle of inquisitors and lawyers jumping to the bidding of public opinion, flapping round every executive’s head and piling accusation on every error. This can only lead to ever more defensive behaviour in every sphere of public life. It is the paranoia of the modern state. Every document is “open”, every conversation “on the record” and your friend today is tomorrow the witness against you.

  2. Pingback: Daring to Diverge: the othering of deviant discourse | ESRI Blog

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