May 25, 2013
Picture this for a twisted morality tale. Every Saturday afternoon on every week of every year over a period of decades, you sit in front of a television programme to watch a zany man in funny clothes use the power of the BBC to fulfil the deepest wishes of young children. There the man sat, in the pantheon of greatness of the era from analogue to digital, one of the giants of the televisual age known to every person in the land, and feted wherever he stepped. This was Jimmy Savile, who, as we now also know, was a paedophilic monster, rapist of mental patients, and incubus of perversion.
What exactly is the population of a country such as Britain to make of this posthumous disgracing of a man whose death in 2011 provides him with immunity from earthy justice? What is a citizen to make of the abhorrent tales that have since the start of October filled the media, or the investigations now under way into a reported 300 victims of his sexual predation?
And, perhaps worse still, what is one to do when every mention of this man’s name stirs deep in the cobwebbed synaptic recesses some of those old, corned catchphrases? “Now then now then” he would trill in a softened Yorkshire accent: it may not sound like anything special or distinctive, but believe me, it is akin to the ghost of Savile laughing in one’s head. Multiply this inner voice by millions, and you have the scale of Britain’s disquiet.
Naturally, the first port-of-call for this scandal has been saturation media coverage. The noted press commentator Roy Greenslade expressed last week his astonishment at the way the story has already lasted four weeks at the top of tabloid, TV and radio billings — a singular rarity in Britain, where, as Tony Blair’s press team knew, the average news soufflé lasts 11 days. The finer minds may be trained on the burning of Syria, the challenge of Romney or the jobless of Spain; the mass media is dedicated to only one matter.
“In the history of what we call ‘media feeding frenzies’ the Savile story is already one of the most enduring,” observed Greenslade.
One vector of this moral turpitude has pointed at who should be blamed. The problem here is that, with Savile dead, the field of responsibility has not so much vanished as undergone exponential expansion. In short, every institution can be blamed: BBC executives past and present, not least those who shelved a first expose of Savile’s crimes late last year; fellow celebrities, who now recall their jokes about the presenter’s supposed necrophilia; the police, who opened investigations seven times and closed them; and the hospitals, three of them in particular, which in return for Savile’s charitable works, which were considerable, gave him freedom to roam and a permanent place to lie down in peace.
Lest it be felt that Savile is receiving a raw deal from 21st century moralizers and gurus of political correctness, consider for a while what exactly he was up to in these hospitals. One of the testimonies received by the police is from a former nurse at the Broadmoor mental hospital, who recounted that a former patient had been repeatedly raped by Savile, and that this abuse only stopped when the presenter found other targets within the facilities. “It’s staggering to think Savile was given the run of Broadmoor,” one former patient told The Sun. “He could access any of the girls’ bedrooms.”
Staggering, for once, is not a cliché. It staggers to connect the private viewing memory of Savile, chortling through one’s remembered childhood, with these deeds. And it bewilders the mind to hear that the police are seeking a ring of paedophiles who could, along with Savile, on his days off from headlining Top of the Pops or Jim’ll Fix It, have perpetrated their acts in a systematic fashion throughout the nooks of the National Health Service.
Now, with yesterday’s arrest of Gary Glitter, a rock star of the 1970s who has himself been convicted of child sex abuse, the police appear to be moving toward full exposure. Yet at the same time, the current evidence suggests that Savile’s activities were not so much condoned and abetted as simply overlooked. The record of inaction is astonishing, and for that we must probably thank the awe felt toward the presenter, a general preference not to meddle, and a diffuse sense that this was all vaguely permitted by the sexual glasnost of the 1960s.
Novelists such as France’s Michel Houellebecq or David Foster Wallace, who took his own life in 2008, have for years pondered the narcissistic and libertine excesses that were waved along by a permissive era. For many millions of gays, this era was absolution; for straights, a godsend; but for some, like Savile, it represented a laisser passer to regions of hell. At the root of it all, judging from many other clinical cases and Savile’s poor upbringing in Leeds, there was most probably abuse of the self-same Jimmy as a boy.
All of these details and considerations stand to emerge in the police investigations, two BBC internal inquiries, and the media’s hunt for guilty parties. For the general public, meanwhile, the story marks the tearing of a veil. Quite possibly it will lead the British to become much more guarded to celebrity and charity, more second-guessing of every face, more responsive to vague suspicion. Jimmy lived for children. Now he has buried what is left of innocence.