I never much liked Jimmy Savile when he was alive. On Top of the Pops he came over to me as a fake eccentric, hollow, faintly grotesque, and not nearly as loveable as he clearly appeared to regard himself.
I knew nothing about his private life and cared even less, and I wasn’t aware of the horrendous allegations that are now pouring out almost daily. Now that I do know, I find his creepy showbiz persona not merely dislikeable, but thoroughly repellent.
At the same time, perhaps the most depressing and disturbing aspect of Savile’s decades-long career as a national icon/charity fundraiser and serial rapist/sexual predator is not just the scale and depravity of his crimes, but the fact that he was allowed to get away with them for so long.
Savile has been variously depicted as an arch-manipulator and a brilliant con-man, which he may well have been. But the allegations against him suggest that quite often these skills were not even necessary, and that he was able to carry out his crimes in the secure knowledge that nothing was going to happen to him.
When Savile reportedly laughed in the face of one of his victims who threatened to report him, he had clearly come to regard himself as legally untouchable, and this impunity was due to at best an extraordinary willingness of the various institutions he was involved with to turn a blind eye to his crimes.
These institutions include the BBC, Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor hospital, and others that will undoubtedly be added to the list, all of whom either failed to respond to rumors and allegations that might have uncovered Savile’s crimes, and at times directly facilitated them.
How can it be that a former wrestler and nightclub manager was placed in charge of a high-security mental hospital and given the run of its facilities? How was it that nurses at Stoke Mandeville hospital could have been aware that Savile was regularly abusing young patients in their wards, and that such knowledge did not reach the police or the hospital management?
Were Savile’s immediate colleagues, technicians, make up crew etc aware of what was taking place in his dressing room and if so why did they not report it?
The failure of so many institutions to contemplate the dark side of Savile suggests a culture of impunity not dissimilar to the recent sexual abuse scandals of the Catholic Church, in which powerful institutions close ranks and engage in collective omertá to preserve their reputations – even if it allows the abuse and exploitation of children and vulnerable young people to go uninvestigated and unpunished.
In the case of the Church, the reasons for this code of silence are obvious: a supposedly benevolent religious institution whose priests are given unique access to young people precisely because of their reputation for goodness and purity is not likely to be keen to reveal information to the public that would damage this saintly aura.
Savile cultivated his own saintly aura, and his credulous and adoring admirers were equally keen to place a halo on his peroxide head, whether it was Margaret Thatcher or Pope John Paul II.
But the general unwillingness to look beneath the surface of this ‘national treasure’ – a horrendous media concept, even when used to describe far less loathsome individuals than Savile – appears to be have been driven not so much by a desire to preserve the reputations of the institutions associated with him, but by the two forces that have done so much to corrupt British society over the last few decades: celebrity and money.
On one hand Savile’s fame made him a prime asset for the BBC, which may have led senior managers to ignore the rumors and allegations that persistently surrounded its star presenter. At the same time Savile – like many rich men in Britain before and since – was able to use his money to threaten tabloid newspapers with libel.
Savile’s money – or his ability to raise it – clearly shaped the responses of many institutions and individuals towards him. His fundraising abilities appear to have made him so important and useful to certain hospitals that they were willing to give him a private office on their premises – regardless of what was taking place in them.
The result was a culture of impunity in which this truly disgusting and contemptible fraud was able to rape mentally-ill patients at Broadmoor and sexually abuse an adolescent girl recovering from a brain operation, in which few people bothered to report such activities and were routinely ignored when they did.
Savile got away with it and died with his halo intact, a knighthood from the Queen and a Papal Knighthood from John Paul II, among the many other awards heaped upon him. Now his reputation has turned to dust and posterity has directed the vilification and contempt that he should have received when he was alive – in addition to a long prison sentence.
But no amount of ’heartfelt apologies’ from the institutions he worked with should be allowed to prevent further investigation into the individuals and organizations that effectively granted him carte blanche for so many years.
On the contrary, if this ghastly episode is to have any positive outcome, it can only be hoped that Savile’s victims continue to come forward, and that those who turned a blind eye to his crimes or even directly facilitated them are publicly shamed and – if necessary – brought to justice.
And the institutions that acted as his enablers or preferred to look away should also pay compensation to his victims for the contemptible cowardice, stupidity and self-interest, which made Saint Jimmy feel – with good reason – that he could do whatever he liked, and that no one who mattered would ever give a damn.