The news is hot on one topic at the moment. Jimmy Savile appears to be one of Britain’s most prolific paedophiles, yet whilst he had an aura of eccentricity and strangeness, the rumours that followed him were never acted upon. Why?
In yesterday’s Observer, Jane Root, controller of BBC2 from 1999-2004, said there needed to be a “truth and reconciliation commission” into Savile along with perceived sexism in the corporation, and “throughout television” in the 1980s and early 1990s. She said: “It was this sexist atmosphere, although a totally different thing, that assisted a very dedicated paedophile such as Savile to operate in the middle of it all”. Therein lies the question. How could the BBC foster such an environment in which Savile could go about his business?
I will admit that I find nothing wrong with adult men finding post-pubescent teenage girls attractive. Biologically speaking, youth is a powerful driver in sexual attraction. Moreover, guys I know will tell you that they have, as adult men, recall at least one situation where they have noticed an attractive underage girl before, especially when they wear revealing clothing and appear to look older than the age of consent. But generally speaking, as people get older, they are attracted to and look for sexual partners closer to their own age. The reason being is that older people have matured, and they are on completely different planes to younger ones mentally. Sexual maturity does not equal mental maturity.
It is for this reason that there exists an age of consent in countries across the world, which is where sexual and mental maturity reach a confluence. This age, of course, is entirely arbitrary but we have to draw the line somewhere and here in the UK we settled on 16. This varies across the world, and indeed in countries with similar cultural norms to ours; for example, in France, the age of consent is 15; in some countries it’s 14, 13 and so on. Indeed, in certain cultures across the world, it is customary for a girl to become pregnant and raise a family as soon as she is physically able to, but they tend to be in countries we consider to be “third world” and are often much more tribal than we are accustomed to.
So whilst I concede there can be an attraction to younger girls, at the same time, I think an adult male should have their testicles cut off and given back to them on a plate if they sexually take advantage of girls under the age of consent knowing full well how old they are. Doing so once is bad enough, but doing so on a prolific basis is nothing short of systemic child abuse. Such behaviour is predatory in nature and much less about sex, but rather, power; a point rightly made by Deborah Orr in Saturday’s Guardian. Savile, who clearly had a predilection for underage girls therefore deserves to be labelled as a child abuser. Noticing a girl who is pretty but young, and having a sole sexual interest in girls under the age of consent are completely different things. The demarcation for when a girl becomes legal is designed to protect her. Savile broke that line, not least by choosing underage targets but by forcing himself upon people, which is horrendous to both adults and children and alike.
Having said all of this, the question then must be asked as to how and why the BBC fostered such an environment in which Savile operated. That there has been a wall of silence around this behaviour, especially in a society that enjoys exposing sleaze, defies belief if we assess it by today’s standards.
The answer lies in the ‘spirit of the times’. This is known as a zeitgeist, defined in the Oxford dictionary as “the defining spirit or mood of a particular period of history as shown by the ideas and beliefs of the time”. Think of the 1950s and how the world looks today compared to back then. Young girls routinely started families much earlier than they do now. We’ve seen a huge swathe of cultural and legal changes designed to bring parity to women and other groups across the world over the course of many hundreds of years.
But it’s a developmental process, and it takes time to finally realise something is wrong and needs to be changed. For instance, a man could legally rape his wife up until 1991. That’s right. A woman could not bring a rape charge against her husband if he had sex with her without her consent because it was seen as part of her marital duty to satisfy her husband. Furthermore, child porn was legally sold in Denmark and other European countries, with laws banning their sale coming only in the early 80s. There existed an organisation called Paedophile Information Exchange which received funding from the Home Office and those who advocated for child sexual freedoms publicly argued for their cause. Homosexuality used to be a crime which deserved imprisonment. We used to hang people if they committed a crime; even on shaky evidence. Women used to be legally paid less than men (and we are still battling on that front). Therefore the zeitgeist is crucial to understanding shifts of thought pertaining to certain periods of time in history, and equal pay, human rights, women’s rights, gay rights: all have benefited from changes in human thinking over the course of time. What is deemed and morally acceptable continuously changes.
It appears, therefore, that Savile came from a time when it was seen as being acceptable, if not publicly but inconspicuously, to engage in sexual behaviour with sexually mature, but underage girls. None more so than in music and show business was this more prevalent. Many famous rock stars had sexual relations with underage girls (think of the groupie culture), and indeed many famous songs were written about such desire. Whilst it may have been frowned upon by certain people (people did complain at the time of Savile’s offences) it certainly didn’t spark the widespread revulsion we would see now – revulsion seen in the recent Jeremy Forrest case for example (Google this name and Megan Stammers if you are unfamiliar with the story). Instead it was met with a wall of silence and a degree of acceptance. The police investigated Savile but did not bring a criminal charge.
So is it the case that the BBC ignored this because it was seen as being “part of the culture” back then? Jane Root seems to think so. Much like it was seen that women were inferior to men on almost every feasible level until we realised it was completely unacceptable and made some very necessary changes. Remember that this behaviour wasn’t just perpetrated against young girls – adults complained about groping at the station as being “par for the course”. Remember too that the BBC produced shows that routinely contained blatant racism in its TV shows, which was viewed as being culturally acceptable back then. The internal culture appears to have been equally inappropriate.
What’s more, the very fact that Esther Rantzen (who made it her mission to protect victims of child abuse) did not see Savile’s abuse as being something which she should complain clearly demonstrates the zeitgeist in which the BBC operated. How else could a woman ignore child molestation whilst at the same time invite victims of child abuse to call ChildLine? I don’t believe it to be about Savile being completely untouchable – there are plenty of domineering stars who the media would love to tear apart – the sleazy press existed back then and surely if they felt it to be a scoop they would have reported all of this many years ago. Nor do I believe his charity work trumped his illegal behaviour.
There exists no plausible defence for illegal behaviour and Jimmy Savile appears to have been a prolific criminal stretching over many decades. He broke the law, but seemingly had free will to do so. Just like the man that once raped his wife as free as he pleased. Thankfully now rigorous controls are in place and it seems very unlikely that a Jimmy Savile would be able to conduct criminal behaviour on an institutional scale. The zeitgeist has changed.