Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Jimmy Savile

Rarely can a reputation have been trashed as quickly and as comprehensively as has happened with Jimmy Savile. As I write, the police have 400 lines of enquiry, his headstone has been removed, his cottage daubed with graffiti and people are talking of removing his UK knighthood and his papal knighthood even though such honours normally die with the holder.

A number of enquiries and reviews have been launched, and I do hope the government come round to the idea proposed by Ed Miliband of a public enquiry, to tie together all the separate enquiries. There are lessons for all of us in what has happened. Here are some I have been reflecting on:

  1. It can years or decades for survivors of sexual abuse to feel confident enough to speak out and to believe that they will be heard. And the difficulty is compounded many times if the abuser is rich, famous and powerful.
  2. While the effects of sexual abuse can vary, they are often devastating, often resulting in an impaired ability to make normal relationships or trust people. In some cases they can lead to mental illness.
  3. While there are strict rules governing young people who work as performers, there are no special ones for those who take part in one show as a member of the public.
  4. One particularly odious aspect of Savile's behaviour is that he picked on girls known already to be vulnerable, because they were ill, in Leeds General Infirmary, or actually or potentially disabled, in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, or considered criminally mentally ill, in Broadmoor, or young offenders, in an approved school. In all these establishments he seems to have been given the run of the place, with his own set of keys and sometimes a flat reserved for him. This achieved through his highly public activity in fund raising. We can now see it as a cloak for his predatory sexual abuse.
  5. Apparently he is on record as saying that anything wrong he did would be set against the good he did. He seems to have imagined that the one would offset the other. Now, offsetting is a normal procedure in finance, but I do not know that it is acceptable in the field of ethics. Reprehensible behaviour does not cease to be such because there is also good behaviour.
  6. It also does not appear that his fund-raising cost him anything. He seems to have revelled in luxuries, of which the white Rolls-Royce can stand as the symbol.
  7. It is incomprehensible that the then government put him in charge of a task force dealing with problems at Broadmoor, when he had no relevant qualifications or experience.
  8. But most seriously of all, we have to question the culture of the places which allowed him free access, did not supervise him, allowed him unrestricted contact with vulnerable children and dismissed the complaints - for some were made - about his conduct. And here, sadly, the BBC is a particular culprit. They built him up as a celebrity and took no care to protect impressionable young people.
In my sheltered and protected life I had never seen his television programmes and had only just about heard the phrase 'Jim'll fix it'. So I am not a good person to comment on the impression he made before his criminal behaviour became known. But maybe we can all learn to be more vigilant and to challenge inappropriate conduct, however famous the perpetrator may be.

Stephen Barber