Friday, 26 October 2012

What will the Savile saga teach us?

The Savile thing roars on and on. BBC Trust Chairman Chris Patten provided yesterday's best hashtag suggestion by referring to the roaring sound as being generated by "a tsunami of filth" which has broken over the Corporation's beleaguered new Director General, George Entwhistle. But this colourful term somehow did not make it as a top Twitter trend so perhaps it can be passed on to any death metal bands looking for a new name. In the meantime, there's more filth, conjecture and innuendo out there than a little blog like this can possibly handle. So, for now at least, there will be no attempt here to form an argument about what the Savile affair might tell us about this country, its media sector or its power structures. After all, nothing new that can be offered here would be any more eloquent and insightful than the line of argument developed a couple of weeks ago by anti-poverty campaigner and tax researcher Richard Murphy.

We can take a look at Murphy's reasoning in due course. In the meantime, let's consider a few simple observations.

What would you have done?
The first of these observations is just a matter of wondering about the souls, sanity and morals of those people who clearly knew for many years that Sir Jimmy was having his wicked way with under-age girls. They knew. But they said and did nothing.

One such person now feeling remorseful about this is Dennis Garbutt, who worked as Savile's driver for twelve months in the early 1970s. Garbutt's wife told The  Daily Mirror:
"Den knew what was going on and we regret not doing anything about it at the time. He said Savile would have girls wherever he went. I couldn't say how many, it was all over the country every time they stopped. He said, 'These girls are barely older than our daughter, who was 12 at the time.' It happened at the Leeds General Infirmary, at Broadmoor and in London. When he stopped he would have young girls. We both feel bad that we never said anything to the police, we're as bad as all the others for not coming forward."
According to this interview, Mr. Garbutt resigned from his driving job as a result of not being able to tolerate his boss's abhorrent behaviour. So while it may be tempting to condemn Garbutt for his failure to pass on what he knew to the police, at least he walked away from the job in disgust. The same cannot be said for some people in rather better paid and more glamorous roles at the BBC.

Among these is the veteran broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, who, speaking recently on ITV's Daybreak programme, said that he had been waiting for thirty years for stories of Savile's crimes to come fully to light. It was interesting to hear Gambaccini saying now something that comedian Jerry Sadowitz was saying twenty-five years ago - putting forward the argument that Savile used his charity fundraising work as a lever to prevent his sordid behaviour being exposed.

So why did Gambaccini not try to draw that behaviour to the attention of someone in a position to put a stop to it? In his Daybreak interview, he put it this way:
"Savile had an imperial personality in show business, I'm not talking about personal life. You just didn't mess with Jim. He was the governor, because after all he had been the first great club DJ, he had been the originator of Top Of The Pops presentation, and you just let him have his turf. And none of us were interested in going there because he was away from us. At social occasions we would all be together, but Jim would not be and he had his own life."
Perhaps you infer from this that the US-born DJ was among a group of Radio 1 employees who felt that outing Savile as a predatory paedophile would be career suicide. If that is what you take from Gambaccini's remarks then you must also infer that he and his colleagues felt that keeping their cushy jobs in broadcasting was a matter of greater importance than acting to prevent child abuse of almost industrial scale. Really, Paul? Spinning records on the radio and doing the talky bit between lip-synching performances on Top of the Pops was a role you valued so much that you decided not to report a child molester? Shame on you. As an articulate and well-educated man (PPE degree from Oxford), you could have easily found other work. Maybe even work of more importance than introducing the latest masterpiece from Black Lace on a Thursday evening.

As this horrible business unfolds, we may see that other well-known TV faces turned a blind eye to the actions of a heartless predator rather than risk career damage. Along the way, we can think of our own job and ask ourselves this question - If I were pretty sure that an important and successful colleague was fucking children, would I really keep quiet in order to keep my job? Only you can decide what your answer would be. Only you can decide if you consider yourself to have higher standards than the likes of Gambaccini and others who remained silent about Sir Jimmy.

Always listen to the sick comics
Today's second observation is that if you want to know what's really going on then you should pay attention to what that man Jerry Sadowitz is saying.

Over the last few days, much has been made of the fact that the Scottish comic and magician felt able to refer to Jimmy Savile as a "child bender" as long ago as 1987.

But Sadowitz knew more than that.

As Paul Gambaccini has continued with his hand-wringing this week, his latest allegation is that Sir Jimmy has a taste for necrophilia as well as paedophilia. Speaking on Radio 5 Live, Gambaccini has suggested that Savile messed around with the bodies of dead children in a Leeds hospital. But this is not news for Sadowitz fans. In a performance last year (all SoundCloud and Vimeo clips of which have disappeared in the last few days), the sweary Scotsman listed necrophilia among Savile's vices.

Sadowitz has often been labelled as an exponent of 'sick' humour. This means he appears to comment in a callous way about human misfortune. It also means his vitriolic stage persona is heard to endorse bigotry and stereotyping of nationalities or ethnic groups. But anyone capable of understanding Sadowitz's act will spot the ironic delivery and realise that it is the bigotry and the stereotyping which are being mocked. This is akin to the Alf Garnett character created by Johnny Speight to satirise racism, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. The somewhat inevitable irony was that different people found Till Death Us Do Part funny for different reasons. Some understood that Garnett's horrible prejudices were being lampooned. They laughed at Alf. Others missed the point and believed they were laughing with the Cockney wanker. More recently, Al Murray's Pub Landlord character has been understood and misunderstood in pretty much the same ways.

Speaking to The Guardian's James Kettle last year, Sadowitz made it clear that he had no wish to be seen as the inspiration for today's PC-baiting comics such as Jimmy Carr, Ricky Gervais and Frankie Boyle.  "If I had known in advance that so many people would hijack the material I put across in my act, and what they would do to it, I would never have taken up comedy," he said. "Never. I'm sorry I've given some very nasty people a good living."

Sadowitz says he objects to the way the genuine rage behind what he does has been turned into a performance by others. "I do find Frankie Boyle offensive," he says. "He'll write a joke, or someone will write it and give it to him, and he'll do it without any thought. It's like someone quoting something without even understanding what it is they've quoted."

Jerry Sadowitz is, of course, not the only comic to be labelled as 'sick' while playing with difficult ideas and making some people feel uncomfortable along the way. Another is Chris Morris, the creator of The Day Today and Brass Eye. Listen to this Morris snippet recorded almost eighteen years ago:

These sick comedians - they knew what Sir Jimmy was about and they didn't mind saying so. The lesson here, perhaps, is that if you want to know what's really going on, it pays to listen to the outliers and the oddballs - the people who are unafraid of saying the supposedly unsayable.

What next?
So the Jimmy Savile shitstorm blows on unabated for now, getting weirder and more toxic by the day. Those interested in humbling (and eventually destroying) the BBC will doubtless seek to use this sordid business to their advantage. At the same time, the question may arise about why the tabloid press never chose to dig into Savile's disgusting private life. After all, it's becoming very clear that a good number of well-connected people knew what he was up to. Even very marginal public figures like the relatively obscure Sadowitz had heard persistent rumours. So are we really to believe that Rupert Murdoch's minions could hack the phones and go through the bins of all and sundry without ever hearing anything about Jimmy Savile? Really? At the same time as taking a close and persistent interest in child abuse? It does seem rather strange, doesn't it?

While you ponder that idea, consider the question asked in Parliament this week by Tom Watson about evidence used to convict paedophile Peter Righton more than twenty years ago. Watson told MPs that "the evidence file used to convict Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring" and that one member of that ring boasted "of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad."

"The leads were not followed up, but if the files still exist", Watson continued. "I want to ensure that the Metropolitan Police secure the evidence, re-examine it, and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10."

Jumping to conclusions is rarely a good idea, but as you consider which former PM may have been close to the aide mentioned by Tom Watson, you may find it hard not to wonder whether Savile fits into the picture somehow. After all, Sir Jimmy famously became friendly with Margaret Thatcher and reportedly spent eleven consecutive New Year's Eves as her guest as Chequers.

But even if there is no link between Righton, Savile and a senior aide to a former PM (Thatcher or some other past Prime Minister), another troubling question could concern the role of the country's security forces when it comes to protecting heads of Her Majesty's Government from risky associations. Just as we might ask whether it's really feasible for the UK's aggressively persistent tabloid hacks to have known nothing of Savile's proclivities, we might also ask whether our country's intelligence officers take no interest in the PM's social life. Can it really be the case that they stand by and offer no word of warning when the Prime Minister chooses to offer hospitality to someone who we now know was dogged by particularly vile rumours for many years? Or are we to assume that anyone can come and go at Chequers without a bit of background checking? It seems like an extraordinary state of affairs either way.

What sort of country is this?
While you mull over these troubling questions, let's check out that interesting article by Richard Murphy, who contends that Savile got away with countless acts of child abuse because he was able to exploit a particularly egregious feature of British society.

"Our society is obsessed with power, and celebrity," writes Murphy. If you've read Oliver James's Affluenza and concurred with its central premise, you will be nodding with agreement at this point.

"Mix the two," Murphy continues, "and people believe a person is quite unlike other people. Though they're not." He goes on to contend that "this society is massively hierarchical" with  power "afforded to those at the top."

"The rest are meant to obey", writes Murphy. "It's incredibly hard to break this rule. At work people want 'team players'. Those are the people who will obey, not rock the boat, won't question and know when to turn a blind eye. Because people have learned that this is how to survive we have large numbers of people in this country who know this is what is expected of them if they are to get on – especially if they are also told in no uncertain terms that they will never make it to the top. Far too many people are told that. I suspect Savile knew that."

Hospitals, children's homes, a mental health facility: it's becoming abundantly clear that Jimmy Savile often selected the most vulnerable victims possible. The ones that no one cared about. The ones who would never be believed.

But in Murphy's analysis, Savile did not only exploit the most obviously weak in our society. He also exploited people with good jobs. People who did not want to lose those jobs. 

"Society does exploit people in these roles in so many ways," continues Murphy, "and it is power that does it: managers want people who will not challenge them, nor bring them news they do not want to hear. So they don't hear it as they're not told it."

If Murphy is right about this, then perhaps we need to think again about the long silence of Paul Gambaccini and others. It was so easy, earlier in this piece, to assert a certain moral superiority over those who could have blown the whistle in the Savile case but chose not to do so. But can we all honestly say we would definitely prioritise the welfare of children we don't know personally over our salaries, our mortgages and over staying in an interesting line of work? If you entertain the suspicion that not everyone would answer in the affirmative, then you may be troubled by the picture which this paints of your fellow human beings and the societies in which we live.

This is all pretty bleak. We need some comfort here. Fortunately, Richard Murphy is able to offer a little of that.

Murphy's analysis of power and status forms one of his two answers to the uncomfortable question of why no one tried very hard to expose Savile before he was dead. The other answer springs from an anecdote in which Murphy recalls a debate at Southampton University in 1977. He was nineteen year-old student there at the time. The motion being debated was that society should respect the right of paedophiles to follow their sexual urges. You will doubtless be pleased to learn that the motion was defeated. But perhaps you will be shocked at the idea of the motion being proposed in the first place. Would such a motion conceivably be debated by undergraduates today? Probably not, right?

"It says something of the time that such a motion was proposed by those too liberal for their own good", writes Murphy. "That was the era". Ordinarily, this blog baulks at any suggestion  that people's sexual preferences should be proscribed in any way. The usual line here is that anything goes between consenting adults. But we're not talking about relations between consenting adults. We're talking about predators seeking to take advantage of the natural power imbalance between adult and minor. So, if over the last few decades we have become more concerned about child abuse and less tolerant of child abusers, this is surely a case of a less liberal attitude being a good thing. This hardening of attitude may make it harder for a any present day equivalent of Jimmy Savile (i.e. a paedophile in a prominent, powerful position) to get away with similar offences for anything like as long as the late entertainer managed to. So perhaps we can draw comfort from that thought. Yes, at times, the moral panic around paedophilia has sometimes been overcooked to the point of appearing ridiculous, thereby providing inspiration for one of Chris Morris's most controversial pieces of work. But it's surely better to err towards too much vigilance and concern than it is to turn a blind eye. Definitely the lesser of two evils. Whether really useful lessons can be drawn from the Savile saga, however, remains to be seen.

1 comment:

  1. Details of the St John ambulance paedophiles and their paedophile protection network which stretches all the way to St John International head office in London, are here: