Jimmy Savile in the news: Saying everything and nothing

I decided not to watch that Jimmy Savile documentary. All the same, I’ve probably seen it all, bit by bit, in stills and reports in the days since it was aired. I’ve probably seen more than was originally in it. There’s a creepy momentum that drags you in, every detail so tremendously believable even though you tell yourself it isn’t.

In a meeting this morning a colleague demonstrated his iPad to me. Flicking through news pages, he paused as a photo of Jimmy, cigar in mouth, leered up at us. It felt, oddly, as though one of us ought to make a joke, although neither of us could. So he passed over swiftly to Justin Lee Collins.

If I’m honest, much of the Savile coverage disturbs me, as does my own willingness to read it. Something about it starts to feel like abuse as entertainment. There is a hunger for further revelations, a need for the net to widen, but precious little self-examination. If anyone is to blame it is, vaguely, “the BBC” and “the prevailing culture”, as though this is a culture that somehow fails to prevail in any other time and place.

Four days ago Brendan O’Neill wrote a nasty little piece in the Huffington Post, in which he made the following assertion about Savile’s accusers:

Making serious accusations against a dead person who is in no position to fight back or plead or prove his innocence, 30 or 40 years after the alleged incidents occurred, is the very opposite of brave – it’s cowardly.

It’s not; if you have lived with this knowledge for so long it is brave. All the same, I start to wonder whether salacious coverage of Savile’s alleged crimes, and the growing interest in just how bad things were at Television Centre, is suppressing the real conversation that needs to be had. It’s the one about about why and how people do say nothing, and not just when garish celebrities are involved.

This is why I think it happens: you don’t want to make a fuss. You think that because someone else has done this, it must be normal. It doesn’t have to be someone with power and authority; anyone who can make you feel ashamed can make you think you’re wrong. And when you see it happen to someone else, you decide that you’re to blame. You’re out of step. There’s just something you’ve not grasped about human nature. You can’t possibly speak, for fear of showing your ignorance. And then time passes and you start to suspect but don’t know – not for sure – whether the other people involved still care. Perhaps they’ve never yet identified things as wrong, so why should you? What good would that bring? And if you say anything now, how would you live with the fact that you didn’t before? So you might as well wait for someone else to make the first move.

I think lots of people do this. A strange, alternative set of rules develops for certain situations and relationships. You know how you would describe it if you read about it in a newspaper, but you won’t use those words in your own world. I seriously wonder how much the current focus on the apparently “weird” culture of the BBC in the 1970s does anything to change this.

While buying my sandwiches today, I noticed that the biggest headline on the cover of Chat magazine was “My 52-Hour Rape Hell”. The word “rape” seemed to loom extra large. Just perfect for your coffee break. We need to talk about these things, but do we need to do it like this?


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