Why didn’t anyone say anything at the time? Why didn’t anyone do anything? Those were the questions people were asking after last week’s exposure of the late Sir Jimmy Savile as an alleged predatory paedophile over many years. But they are the wrong questions, asked in the misleading perspective of hindsight. It is all too easy to understand what happened, assuming that at least some of the allegations are true, and how such a man could get away with such crimes. It is no accident that allegations are emerging only after his death, when Savile can neither defend himself nor sue for libel.
The first obvious truth is that ugly rumours almost always surround stars. That being so, it is often entirely reasonable to dismiss nasty gossip about them, and all the more tempting if one has any interest in doing so. Many people knew for years of suspicions about Savile, but there were countless incentives to turn a blind eye.
That doesn’t in the least excuse anyone for ignoring the rumours, least of all those in the BBC who had the power, or the duty, to look into them: entirely inexcusable has been the BBC’s shocking attempt to cover up Savile’s crimes by suppressing its own Newsnight exposé last December. But it does make it less incomprehensible that Savile allegedly got away with sexually assaulting and raping schoolgirls, and possibly a 12-year-old boy, for so long.
Esther Rantzen, a BBC star at the same time as Savile and much photographed with him, has been much derided this past week for ignoring for years, as she has tearfully admitted, the many rumours she heard about him.
It’s all extremely awkward for her, as the righteous founder of ChildLine and scourge of child abusers. Now, having seen thetelevision exposé, she is convinced of Savile’s guilt. “We all colluded with him,” she said brokenly on television, “didn’t we? We turned him into the Jimmy Savile who was untouchable. He was a godlike figure.”
Unaccustomed though I am to defending Rantzen, I do have some slight sympathy. As a star herself, she must have known how much spiteful gossip celebrity attracts: jealousy, resentment and idle malice feed into nasty lies, designed to punish success. During my years in the BBC I heard plenty that were circulating about Rantzen, and I am ashamed to say I believed most of them.
It was only later, when I became a presenter of an arts show myself, and learnt of rumours people were spreading about me, that I realised that defamation is what happens to people who presume to put their heads above the parapet. So I stopped believing rumours, including those about Rantzen. And now I imagine she could easily have seen the persistent rumours about Savile as nothing more than the badmouthing that goes with stardom. So could other senior management figures at the top of the BBC.
As for those who did know the truth about Savile’s crimes, or thought they did, it would have been genuinely difficult to speak out. Whistleblowing takes enormous courage, and is usually punished. We know now that the complaints of a few brave girls were ignored. In one case a girl from an approved school who loudly objected to being groped by Savile was dragged from his arms by staff and locked up in solitary confinement, she says, for daring to suggest that saintly “Uncle Jimmy” was capable of such wickedness.
As for the people in the lower ranks of the BBC and of Savile’s nightclubs, the sources of what Rantzen called “green room gossip”, who may have seen something of Savile’s alleged sexual abuse of young girls, they had little hope of being believed either, even supposing they were prepared to risk their careers by spilling the beans on the sainted Jim. He was a national treasure, a man who raised £40m for charity, who was feted at Buckingham Palace and friends with Diana — box-office gold. Who would prefer their word to his Croesus-like celebrity? Even the broadcaster Paul Gambaccini must have felt intimidated. Once a colleague of Savile’s on Radio 1, he said last week that he had been “waiting 30 years” for such stories to come out. Savile, he said, used his charity work as a lever to prevent his private life from being exposed, and played the press “like a Stradivarius”. When one newspaper called him, threatening exposure, Savile supposedly said: “Well, you could run that story, but if you do, there goes the funds that come in to Stoke Mandeville — do you want to be responsible for the drying-up of the charity donations?” If true, this is yet another excellent reason for many people who lacked any specific evidence about Savile’s crimes to turn a blind eye to the rumours. He was,alleged, a bully, a large and scary man who had been a coalminer and a wrestler. As Gambaccini said, “You just didn’t mess with Jim … and none of us were interested in going there.”
Besides, as people such as Rantzen pointed out last week with unconscious irony, he was a Catholic blessed by the Pope! These days that in itself might have been enough to take the accusations against him more seriously, but then it still conferred a faint whiff of sanctity.
Finally, one of the deepest, because most unconscious, reasons for ignoring all the Savile stories is the worst. It is that until recently few people listened to children and victims of sexual assault or took them seriously. From the 1960s onwards it was taken for granted that pop stars, music celebs and their hangers-on were entitled to make sexual use of groupies, young girls who were erotically obsessed with pop stars.
Much of their music was a mating call aimed directly at underage girls, as you can see from shots of contemporary audiences. And after all, what does the word teenybopper suggest? Most, if not all, pop and rock bands had sex with the chicks they encountered, regardless of their age: in the music world it was the droit de seigneur of the age, and Savile was not alone in exercising it.
Casually using young girls for sex simply wasn’t then seen as the crime it actually was and is. It wasn’t seen as paedophilia, or even as rape. Even those who disapproved of groupiedom often saw the girls as silly slags who deserved what they got, rather as with the underage victims in Rochdale.
Roman Polanski’s famous friends defend him to this day for his sexual abuse of an underage girl in 1977, partly because that’s what stars did then. The only proper and urgent question to ask in all this is whether such attitudes still exist to this day.
Fixing ‘Uncle Jimmy’, News Review firstname.lastname@example.org