Licence to swill

Apropos the continuing furore over the late Jimmy Savile and the definitely not late Stuart Hall, the names of Andy Grey and Richard Keys sprang to mind.

In case you’d forgotten (or the whole case had passed you by to begin with), Grey and Keys were the megastar presenters of Sky Sports’ football coverage. Unfortunately for them, they were caught on tape making distinctly sexist remarks about a female referee, and Grey then compounded that by jokingly asking a female Sky presenter to tuck his shirt in for him in a way that had clear sexual overtones.

As offences go, that probably rates no more than a 1 or 2 on the Savile-Hall scale (where Savile himself defined the meaning of 10 and Hall was somewhere around 7). Nonetheless, Sky didn’t see the funny side and sacked the pair of them.

So why are they relevant? Well, when it’s becoming increasingly clear that the BBC has a long-standing problem with abuse perpetrated by its senior stars, then the questions of how and why obviously need to be asked.

Sky sacked Grey and Keys because they had become a commercial liability. Despite being established stars who were, at least up to that point, very popular with their audience, they crossed a line where that was no longer enough. It’s also notable that Sky made no attempt to cover up their misbehaviour. The BBC, on the other hand, seems to have had an institutional reluctance to expose its star players to public scrutiny in a way which might damage their appeal.

So, what is the difference? Why should a commercial broadcaster (mostly owned, let’s not forget, by popular hate figure Rupert Murdoch) act more honourably than the great cultural institution which is the BBC?

I can’t answer that for certain. In any case, it’s likely that there are all sorts of different internal motivations, pressures and traditions which created that difference in culture. But, even so, I can’t help thinking that at least part of it is due to the unique way in which the BBC is funded.

Fixing Jim

Now then, now then. Two reports from Operation Yewtree are out, and we now know what a rotten bounder Jimmy Savile was. Or do we?

Let’s start with a few facts that can be gleaned. Firstly, there is no real evidence at all that Savile was a paedophile. Although most of the allegations come from people who were under the age of consent at the time, there are no more than a handful – if any – which assert that his victims were pre-pubescent.

Secondly, both the number and detail of the allegations makes it almost certain that, had action been taken while he was still alive, Savile would have faced a lengthy spell in prison. Quite possibly, he’d have died there.

Finally, though, it’s also clear that many of the allegations would, alone, not have met the test for prosecution or even investigation. Some of them, for example, seem to consist of little more than a misremembered account of a fan’s slightly uncomfortable encounter with a celebrity. As Charles Moore points out in the Daily Telegraph, a list of allegations is not at all the same thing as a list of offences.

That doesn’t mean I’m defending Savile. As I said a couple of paragraphs ago, I think there is enough evidence to be sure, beyond reasonable doubt, that Savile was guilty of many instances of serious abuse, quite probably including rape. And, if true, it is a genuine scandal that it wasn’t uncovered earlier. But some of the statements being bandied about in the media are grossly inaccurate, and I don’t think tha’s at all helpful. It is, for example, simply not true that Savile was a “Predatory paedophile[1] who spent “every waking minute” thinking about offending and “groomed the nation“. The first of these is factually inaccurate, the others are pure hyperbole.

But does that matter? I think it does. It seems to me that the media’s reaction to the Savile allegations is a perfect tendency of the press to simplify everything. When he died, Savile was a hero. A few years later, he’s public enemy number one. The possibility that, actually, he could have been both a great entertainer and philanthropist AND a serial abuser seems to be beyond the ability of the typical journalist to grasp.

The real tragedy, of course, is that the truth will probably never be known. In the absence of a defendant there can be no trial, and if there can be no possible trial then there is no incentive for the police or CPS to carry out any more than a cursory investigation into the allegations. That’s particularly bad news for the real victims, who will never get the chance to demonstrate to a court that they weren’t just starstruck groupies who later regretted allowing Savile to cop a feel. There are already articles on the web dismissing all of the allegations as having no substance, and using some of the more obviously trivial cases as evidence for that assertion. I think that’s wrong; I think that Savile really did commit some serious crimes. But it doesn’t help the victims of those crimes if they are merely listed as another allegation along with those which would be most unlikely to withstand trial. And at the other end of the scale are the conspiracy theorists who see the failure to prosecute Savile as evidence of a giant cover-up in the establishment.

So, are there any lessons we can learn? To be honest, I’m not sure there are. Of course, the CPS are busily promising that things will change and that allegations will be taken more seriously in future, but I’m not sure that will really help. So far, as part of the concurrent investigation into allegations against people other than Savile, the police have made a few high profile arrests. But I have a sneaking suspicion that most of those will fizzle out without leading to a conviction.

There has already been a sea change in attitudes here. Back when Savile was offending (and most of the allegations relate to the 60s, 70s and 80s when he was at the peak of his fame), it was almost impossible to be taken seriously if you made an accusation of sexual abuse against an authority figure. These days, people are considerably more willing to believe a complaint. That’s something which has come back to haunt the Catholic church, for example, as historic allegations of abuse levelled at priests are now being made public and the hierarchy has been forced to admit complicity in a cover-up. The convictions of Gary Glitter and Jonathan King have demonstrated that celebrities are not immune.

I think it’s very likely that if a popular entertainer was behaving now in the way that Savile did 20 or 30 years ago then they would find it considerably harder to avoid detection. And that’s a good thing. But it does mean that there isn’t a lot more we can do. The reason why Savile wasn’t brought to justice before he died wasn’t really because of failings by the police and CPS, it was because society as a whole didn’t take that kind of abuse seriously. Far from Savile grooming a nation, it’s more the case that celebrity culture groomed Savile to be an abuser.

I think the real lesson we can learn is that offenders come from all walks of life, and sometimes they can be people who are, in many other ways, entirely deserving of praise. Savile’s celebrity status doesn’t excuse his behaviour, but neither do his crimes nullify the good he did. He was a great entertainer, he did do a huge amount for charity, and he was deservedly recognised for that. People do not fall neatly into two boxes simply labelled “good” and “bad”, and Savile is evidence of that.


[1] This is a real “predatory paedophile”. Savile was nowhere near this level of offending, even if every allegation made against him is completely accurate.