It was the culture of neglect that allowed Jimmy Savile to flourish
The torpor of those in authority – at the BBC and elsewhere – has left countless victims
Abuse, like charity, begins at home. The monster who ruins a child’s life is not, in many cases, a shadowy stranger but a friend, a father or an uncle. That roster of shame has been expanded to include an Auntie.
The BBC, with its quasi-familial role in British life, did not actively collude in the crimes of Sir Jimmy Savile. Nor, in all likelihood, did it engineer a cover-up of his predatory paedophilia. But sins of omission can be almost as reprehensible as those of commission, and the BBC appears guilty, at the least, of wilful ignorance. The corporation’s senior managers seem, like the three wise monkeys, to have chosen to see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil.
Called before the Culture, Media and Sport select committee to explain the Savile debacle, the corporation’s director‑general yesterday gave a bloodless performance. George Entwistle outlined a culture of managerialism so suffocating that rival Somali warlords, if gathered round a water-cooler, might have a more collegiate dialogue than senior BBC staff.
Mr Entwistle’s corporation came across as an organisation devoted to omertà. In particular, his response to questions about how much he knew about the spiked Newsnight exposé of Savile suggested a fetish for protocol combined with the natural curiosity of a lentil.
It was left to a Conservative MP, Therese Coffey, to ask him about the “chilling words” of the programme’s now-sidelined editor, Peter Rippon, who complained in an email to the investigation’s producer that the sources were “just the women”. On Monday’s Panorama programme, one of those women, Karin Ward, finally got the chance to have her say, claiming that she watched as Gary Glitter had sex in Savile’s dressing room with a pupil from her approved school – a charge that Glitter denies.
If Mr Rippon preferred to deal with the failure of institutions such as the prosecuting authorities, rather than dabble in the messy wreckage of human lives, he cannot have been alone. Indeed, it is the heartlessness of a BBC whose senior management looks casual in the face of suffering that may cause it the most lasting damage. A public service body funded by the people and reliant on their trust must be what Ed Miliband might call a one‑nation broadcaster. And yet the impression left by Mr Entwistle was of a chilly elite far removed from the vulnerable children on whom its leading icon preyed.
At the heart of Savile’s story are two interlinked forms of violation – the abuse of children and the abuse of power. The victims were betrayed not only by the BBC hierarchy but also by the Surrey police, who failed to prosecute; by the DJ’s colleagues, who never spoke out; and by all those in awe of a star whose fame and bogus virtue shielded him from scrutiny until (no thanks to the BBC) his secrets emerged and the current wave of horror broke.
Parables of mass hysteria are nothing new. Long after Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, explored the force of evil in the community, the Salem bandwagon rolls on. In 1987, a supposed witch-hunt began in Cleveland, in the North East of England, where 121 children were removed from their homes, in the face of public fury, after two paediatricians diagnosed sexual abuse using a little-known and controversial diagnostic technique.
Folklore suggests, a quarter of a century on, that the Cleveland child abuse scandal was a saga of wronged parents and rogue doctors. That is too simplistic. As a young reporter, I sat in front rooms on a Middlesbrough estate and listened to adults’ stories of exculpation. I did not know then who was telling the truth and who was lying, and I do not know now. After a media firestorm and an inquiry costing £4 million, the case was laid to rest. In the meantime, some children were quietly removed permanently from their homes.
Subsequent legislation, including the Children Acts of 1989 and 2004, has failed to stem the tide of tragedy and scandal. In Rochdale and Rotherham, paedophile rings abused underage girls, unchecked by police or by officials. Fear of racism was said to be a factor in the failure to stop the perpetrators – who were of Pakistani origin – but the sexual abuse of children, from the church sacristy to the BBC dressing rooms allegedly stalked by Savile, knows no boundaries of race or class or creed.
There are, however, some common elements in the recent outbreaks – or epidemics – of sexual abuse. The torpor of those in authority and the failure of institutions, such as the police and the BBC, allow the vulnerable to be dominated by the mighty. So, in the eyes of some critics, does a permissive culture in which children are corrupted by the marketers of make-up, provocative clothing and celebrity magazines that thrive in an overly liberal society.
Yet while the liberal Left certainly has some past form on tainted ideas (anyone for eugenics?), it is facile to accuse it of the death of innocence. Childhood is shrinking, but not because of greater licence. In many ways, the opposite is true. In 1971, around 80 per cent of children went to school on their own. Two decades later, that figure had dropped to 9 per cent. Games consoles, televisions and the fear of hostile forces have conspired to make most – but not all – children more sheltered.
At the heart of the Savile case are the victims, selected for their vulnerability. Those who recoil in horror at his depravity might also spare a thought for youngsters who, in different circumstances, find themselves at the mercy of a British culture of neglect. A study published today by Inquest and the Prison Reform Trust concludes that six children who killed themselves in prison in recent years were systematically failed by the systems set up to keep them from harm.
In Britain, where human rights are regarded with suspicion, children’s rights are seen as an even less desirable subset. While victims of all ages attract sympathy and outrage when a terrible crime befalls them, abuse is still ignored or marginalised. The slowness to prosecute domestic violence and the woeful conviction rate for rape suggest that the attitudes of many in authority reflect the unwise words of one BBC executive. Who listens to “just the women”, or just the children?
Now, centre stage should belong not to the grey men of the BBC and other bastions of authority, but to those whose lives were ruined by Jimmy Savile, a rogue operator in an establishment that gave him the glory, the freedom and the immunity to do as he wished.
It seems implausible, on Mr Entwistle’s evidence, that the sclerotic BBC hierarchy told the editor of Newsnight to can his programme. Quite possibly, he was spooked into taking a wrong decision that will haunt the corporation. There was little in the director-general’s sanitised responses to suggest that he realised quite what a catastrophe has befallen a BBC that failed in its duty to a public entitled to see it as a beacon, in a tainted culture, of good practice and good faith. As Edmund Burke said, all that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. The Savile scandal is a reminder of the lethal inertia at the heart of public life.