x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Enough guilt to go around in Britain's paedophilia scandal

The controversy surrounding BBC personality Jimmy Savile must not be allowed to descend into a witch hunt.

London eye

Michael Simkins

There's only one subject of conversation in Britain at the moment, and a doleful one it is: namely, the veritable tsunami of revelations about TV personality, charity fund-raiser and "national treasure", the late (but no longer lamented) Jimmy Savile. To this litany of occupations, which made him one of the most recognised and loved celebrities in the UK, we add another, less honourable title - serial paedophile.

Savile was, until his death in October 2011, a genuine example of that much-overused term a "one-off". With his bleached fair hair, and glitzy tracksuits, with a Havana cigar forever clamped between his teeth, his image was unique. Such was the esteem in which he was held by the nation that when he died aged 84, thousands turned out for his funeral, followed by a special tribute broadcast by the BBC at Christmas.

Yet despite his fame, nothing was ever really known about the man; which, we now see, is just the way he wanted it. He lived quietly in the same flat in Leeds throughout his life and never married. When he was not on our television screens, he maintained a secure canopy over his private affairs.

Only now, as a result of an ITV exposé last month chronicling his decades as a serial sex offender, has his darker side been revealed.

Indeed, his elevated status, and the absurd trust placed in him, allowed him to exploit often highly vulnerable teenagers wherever he went - as a presenter of the flagship music show Top Of The Pops, as a fund-raiser for Stoke Mandeville spinal injuries hospital, and even at a secure mental institution, where he was given his own office and entrusted with a set of keys.

The extraordinary aspect about the allegations now pouring forth is that his conduct over five decades was something of an open secret. Everybody, it seems, now says they heard the rumours, yet - crucially - nobody claims to have witnessed a crime in person or had sufficient proof to justify taking action.

To whit, even I must claim some minimal culpability. In 1985, I bumped into an old girlfriend whose husband had just been admitted to Stoke Mandeville after breaking his back in a rugby accident. Jessica was necessarily spending a lot of her time there, and during our brief conversation she mentioned that Savile was a regular visitor.

When I asked what he was like, her reply was chilling and unequivocal: "A predatory monster." My reaction, in keeping with everyone who heard such tales, was bewilderment mixed with scepticism. Savile? The nation's darling was a predatory monster? It simply couldn't be.

With fresh allegations surfacing every day yet, the Savile crisis is threatening to engulf almost anyone who ever employed him, not least the BBC, which turned him into a star in the first place. Both the newly installed director general, George Entwistle, and the BBC trust chairman, Chris Patten, are struggling to provide a credible explanation for the organisation's myopia. The corporation cancelled its own news department's recent investigation into Savile's behaviour in favour of broadcasting the Christmas tribute show.

Perhaps it's little surprise that John Simpson, a senior BBC foreign correspondent, has declared that the furore is the "worst crisis" he has seen in 50 years on the job.

Yet I wonder if this outpouring of shock and indignation directed towards anyone who so much as shook hands with Savile is not a witch hunt. Many of those who hired him - and who turned a blind eye to his crimes - are either dead or long retired. Yet public outrage has been stirred, and people are baying for blood.

Surely the truth, however unpalatable, is that we are all to blame. Not just the hospital managers who gave him the keys, or the charity bosses, or even the BBC chiefs who allowed him to use the premises as a paedophile harem - but all of us who preferred to ignore the rumours while enjoying his public persona over a nice cup of tea.

Savile's ornate headstone at his local cemetery has already been removed by his family, but the damage done by the man will be far more difficult to put right - and not just for his victims. It would be the final tragedy if Savile, a man who used hospitals, schools and the BBC to cover his crimes, should become the architect of their destruction.

Among all this misery, that surely would be the saddest legacy of all.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins