Victims’ revelations about the depraved and predatory acts of the late Jimmy Savile will perhaps be recorded as testimony to one of the greatest failures of British society’s obligation to protect its children.
The devastation left by Savile will have implications far beyond the lives of those he abused, it may even affect society’s understanding of trust. People trusted Savile. They trusted him even when the klaxons were sounding in their head, even when their gut was telling them that something was badly wrong.
How could a man so dangerous have been granted such casual access to his intended victims? Simple – he was on the television. Millions of people watched this man on the telly, behaving eccentrically for sure, but nonetheless a man who appeared to be trusted with a responsible job. A man trusted to present television shows for and, more chillingly, with children. A man trusted to be filmed helping vulnerable people; to be interviewed at the finish-line of charity marathons. Savile was a monster for whom television created an unshakeably friendly and trustworthy facade. The dangers of bogey-men brandishing puppies at the school gates were explained to me in the video ‘Just Say No’, presented by Rolf Harris (it’s a classic, if you were born in the early 80s you likely saw it too). This was always referred to as ‘stranger-danger’ – clearly people we felt we knew posed no such danger. It was, in part, the power of Savile’s television persona that made him so untouchable – so many people saw on-screen a man they felt that they knew, and could trust.
As a child of the 80s my television diet consisted almost entirely of eccentric middle-aged men. Like millions of others I enjoyed watching Jim’ll Fix It. I observed that his cigar, whilst never lit, put him strangely at odds with the clean appearance of other presenters. Even at a young age I’d sussed that Jimmy Savile was a rather strange man. I far preferred Johnny Ball, Tony Hart, Rolf Harris, and Timmy Mallet. That said, Mallet was not quite on the same intellectual plane as the others – he was a hyperactive kid in need of a handful of Ritalin and a long stay on the naughty step. I had a dislike of Geoffrey Hayes, Matthew Corbett and Rod Hull. Even at such a young age I could see when a grown-man was making an idiot of himself. Whatever my views, these men and many more had legions of committed young fans. Thankfully none of my favourite presenters let me down, I still hold them all in high-esteem. Well, Rolf Harris drinks his own piss, but I’ll pretend I never discovered that.
Will parents now feel that too much trust has been extended to the relative strangers who gain, with their onscreen personas, so much trust from children and adults alike? Will they trust broadcasters to never-again turn a blind-eye to the secretive lives of their presenters? Will some of us begin to question the motives of presenters who have connections to children outside of their television roles? One of the saddening consequences of Savile’s involvement in the voluntary sector could be that celebrities affiliated with charities, especially those caring for the young or vulnerable, become viewed with unfounded suspicion.
I see only one immediate certainty – that there will forevermore be a greater vigilance surrounding the behaviour of celebrities in contact with the young. It’s saddening that society has to become ever-more doubtful of the motives of others, but the alternative is unthinkable – and we have recently witnessed the unthinkable become a horrid and guilt-ridden reality. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.”
Picture credit: NAPAC, The National Association of People Abused in Childhood.