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People & Ideas

Dec 20, 2012

Savile scandal probes history of dangerously free love

As the inquiries into the Jimmy Savile scandal widen, the present is cannibalising the past, to general distress. The question is: how many other people will be drawn in?

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Coming back into Heathrow — rain, rows of brown houses on the ground, a decaying terminal, with its faux pub, warm Carlsberg and prawn cocktail sandwiches — the tabloid headings on the WH Smiths rack at Heathrow said it all: “Savile — BBC didn’t want obituary”.

The Jimmy Savile scandal was unfolding as I left the UK in October; it has now opened wider than a slit parachute. Today the findings of the inquiry headed by former Sky News head Nick Pollard were released, painting a fairly damning picture of “confusion and chaos” at the Beeb, as the process of sorting out whether Savile should get a tribute program or an expose after his death.

Savile, the visibly odd BBC kids entertainer, pop/game show host, etc, who died last year, had been revealed after his death as a serial s-xual predator, over a period of decades. At the time there was a tribute, and senior producers squashed a story on BBC flagship Newsnight detailing allegations against Savile by women who Savile had bedded when they were pre-legal teens in the ’70s. The allegations came out in a Channel Four story, and so too did the BBC cover-up.

After the Four story, there were resignations at the Beeb. More importantly, more women came forth — as did former BBC producers, DJs, etc. It soon became clear Savile had been a predator over a course of decades, an appalling human being. He had been famed for his commitment to charity shows at hospitals — largely, it now became clear, because it offered access to vulnerable young women, some of them intellectually disabled.

As a searching police investigation began, there were accusations that Savile was part of a whole ring of music/pop/TV meant to be taking advantage of the hero-worship Savile enjoyed from young kids. By now, eight people have been arrested as part of the investigation, including DJ David Lee Travis, PR supremo Max Clifford and, inevitably, Gary Glitter. Meanwhile, the head of Newsnight and then of the BBC entire, both resigned. Savile’s family arranged for his gravestone to be removed, crushed and the debris thrown into the sea.

Stories like this gain attention for one of two reasons: either because they feature someone everyone was surprised to find guilty of such, or because the revelations surprised no one at all. In this case it was both — Savile sailed through 40 years of stardom, being everyone’s favourite TV uncle; two full generations of Brits have fond memories of the moptop-mulleted, cigar-smoking, tracksuited, gold-chained man-child, who never moved out of his mother’s house and slept in her unchanged bedroom. Yeah, nothing to see here.

The reversal of Savile’s image, from s-xless imp to obvious predator, has been part of a wider cultural shift, but it’s fair to say it has retroactively changed the childhood of millions of Britons. As former fan Oliver Milman wrote for Crikey, one of Savile’s iconic shows was Jim’ll Fix It, a program in which kids wrote in asking Savile to organise things for them — fly in a biplane, drink a spiked Fanta in a BBC dressing room, etc — and there are hundreds of clips of Jim with smiling kids that now have a darker meaning.

Nor is it likely to be the last bodyshock to the culture. Savile, it appears, was both an exploiter of post-pubescent groupies, and also a p-edophilic predator on pre-pubescent children of both genders. There’s no details of what the other men are arrested are guilty of, though Glitter is a convicted p-edo. Others may be guilty of hitting on underage groupies that Savile drew in. It is for that reason the net is spreading so wide — to a group of men taking advantage of access to free (underage) girls — and also why it may draw yet more of the culture and of memory.

For the plain fact is, from the ’60s into the ’80s, if you’re talking about male stars and 15-plus girls, then everyone was doing it. Or, if not everyone, at least a solid percentage. Most such people would have had rules about how young they liked their groupies, and some implicit morality about tweens and early teens — but that simply emphasises the degree of acceptance of sampling mid-teen girls.

“Now, as the inquiries widen, the present is cannibalising the past, to general distress.”

You can see what it was like by watching the shows of the era — the loose studio style of presentation with the audience, kids, crowded in around the presenters, and the industry itself having the freewheeling style of the counterculture. People wandered in and out of dressing rooms, drank through shows, and production values were no better than they needed to be. Pre-multichannel environments, the TV and music industries were such moneymakers there was no real drive for efficiency, or much adult supervision.

The tightening and streamlining of TV coincided with the eruption in concern over child abuse that occurred in the late ’80s. The audience was segregated, from performers and contact with children began to be supervised and chaperoned. By 2000 at least half-a-dozen TV and music producers were doing jail time for s-x with minors, and a police check of everyone became mandatory. Nowadays, the bloke who comes to deliver the water cooler refills on the set of Neighbours has to have a background certificate, and everyone on up.

Now, as the inquiries widen, the present is cannibalising the past, to general distress. One of the reasons there is so much ’60s/’70s nostalgia around these days is that it’s the last period before the boomgate came down — when the general perception was you could hitch a ride, catch a plane with a flick-knife in your pocket, cross the street without climbing six safety barriers, and hang out with the band. The downside of it is becoming obvious. The question is: how many other people and scenes will it draw in? Some of this has been hiding in plain sight for a long time.

Take, as the gold-standard of “free”-wheeling behaviour, Led Zeppelin. Last month, the three improbably surviving members of the band were honoured at the White House. But the various memoirs of people associated with the band detail a history not merely of s-x with underage girls, but of drinking, doping and coercion shading into full s-xual assault. Even the most stand-up bands of the time didn’t ask for ID — “12 is wrong, 15 is bad lighting” as the old saying goes.

Pre-pubescent p-edophilia is rare in the music industry. It is less uncommon in TV, whose plentiful supply of child actors (though less than there once were) attracts predators, for the same reason Willie Sutton robbed banks — “‘cos that’s where the money is”. The real question is what should happen as this process widens. S-xual coercion and assault should be investigated, and if viable, prosecuted, no matter what the time lag, particularly if there are multiple complainants. So should s-xual activity with pre-pubescents. Whether much of this groupie behaviour should be legally re-opened decades after the fact remains to be seen.

It seems reasonable, for a whole lot of developmental and cultural reasons, that we should set the age of consent around 16 or 17 (at least for s-x with adults). But we haven’t always, and some jurisdictions have set it at 14. As long-hidden strands of p-edophilia within society have come to light — and may also have increased in frequency — over the past decade, some activity has been caught in its net. Borderline underage s-x is one of these, and the process has led to a one-size-fits-all (yes, yes, habloodyha) approach.

This is a discussion that is going to have to be had across the board, something that has been apparent for quite a while. At the moment, the default setting is that every accusation of s-xual misconduct, made decades later, should be given a full court press — even when the dangers of mistaken memory, uncorroborated evidence, etc, remains huge.

But the Savile scandal means it won’t happen in the UK, for the moment. Just as Phil Spector’s crazed killing of a woman forever tarnished the exuberant innocence of his “wall of sound” tracks from the early ’60s, so many Brits cannot now look back on the most basic part of a post-’50s childhood — TV that offers a portal to another world — without seeing a few extra shadows. The total information society expands not only in space but time, leaving us with a constantly revised past. The almost irremovable mindset of human life has always been that of a “fall away” from a golden age, collectively and individually. Childhood nostalgia is a powerful part of that process.

Now, such memories can come under assault at any time. It leaves people in a permanent present, and that is not a great place for Britain to be at the moment, a sort of permanent Heathrow of the soul. Nor will we soon be out of it.

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29 thoughts on “Savile scandal probes history of dangerously free love

  1. cairns50

    another great article guy thanks

  2. Dani Dambrosio

    This is a very well written article Guy, and so true – how our state of living is now permanently in the present.. damn shame; and I didn’t even grow up in that golden age.

  3. zut alors

    A terrific piece, Guy. All credit to you and the English air.

  4. Damian Lloveda

    Kudos. Top quality article, very well written. I mentioned to a friend in passing, pieces which provoke more thought and more questions is what i seek. Here i found.

  5. michael r james

    [Coming back into Heathrow — rain, rows of brown houses on the ground, a decaying terminal, with its faux pub, warm Carlsberg and prawn cocktail sandwiches — the tabloid headings on the WH Smiths rack at Heathrow said it all: “Savile — BBC didn’t want obituary”.]

    Oh, lawdy me, as if the first para is not bad enough, the rest of the article is such a downer. Good writing of course, but too good. It makes me feel sick. I don’t know how you do it. Go back to that sh!t country, I mean. Last time I arrived there–very similar ambience as your first para–it was only minutes before I foreswore to never visit again if possible. The vibe is intolerable.

    The Savile scandal indeed says it all. The French have President’s secret families, or presidential contenders (DSK) whose hyper-active s*x life leaves one breathless, perhaps not exactly with admiration or envy but still … debonnaire, charming, smart and powerful men of the world … Instead the Brits have a greasy shyster mummy’s-boy p_edo who makes one’s skin crawl.

    And that is not a retroactive opinion. Like Mike Carlton noted a while back, when he interviewed Savile in London in the late 70s, he was filled with revulsion about 60 seconds into the interview. Notwithstanding the quasi-reality behind the “two full generations of Brits have fond memories” of the sleazebag, from my first tv sighting of him in 1980, it was a deeply worrying mystery as to why anyone tolerated him as 30 seconds was more than enough. And that is without knowing the worst of it.

    It even brings to mind–though some will find it an unfair stretch–the ’97 election of Tony Blair. I couldn’t understand how Brits could stand the guy let alone consider him some kind of political hero. Back then he made my skin crawl too, and perhaps today as we see him fleetingly flickering on the tube, more Brits would agree. Just another political chancer with a (peculiar) Oxford accent leading the herd and entire country down a cul de sac.

    “… a sort of permanent Heathrow of the soul. Nor will we soon be out of it.” Guy, you gotta get outta there! It’s not even interesting to document this Brit type of decadence (and we have Dalrymple for that). And Tony Abbott is there! As FDOTM says today: “Pass me a bucket”.

  6. dale ross

    Unfortunately Guy you are making dangerous assumptions such as claiming the accusations are true when no such thing has been proved in a court- they ARE still accusations against a man who can no longer defend himself.

    You also use the idiotic tabloid perversion of the word pedophilia which has a distinct clinical and legal definition to describe events if true, would be unlawful sex with an underaged person. This is NOT pedophilia.

    Such loose tabloid skewering of language is as dangerous as the tabloid media has been in all this ie: a sacked editor of The Sun (one charged in the hacking scandal) claims he knew all about Savile but was precluded form ‘exposing’ him because of libel laws.

    That does not explain why the entirety of Fleet Street however went on promoting Savile on a weekly basis whilst at the same time claiming they knew of these alleged offenses. Including soppy eulogies upon his death one year ago.

    If it is true what is claimed about Savile, Britain’s media should be in the dock as well if for no more reason than the Murdoch media quite happily printed topless photos of teen girls, some below age 16 up until 2003 wen the laws changed. Such photos would now be considered child p*rn but it seems media moguls are exempt.

    The real story about the Savile claims is that of the role of the media and that includes our ABC which outrageously broadcast a gutter type tabloid TV commercial show about this very matter on 4 Corners- a show more suitable for Fox News.

    As usual, the media itself avoids any scrutiny in it’s role in these scandals.

  7. Roberto Tedesco

    Jeez, Michael R James and Mike Carlton could have saved everyone a lot of time if they’d only let us know when they knew. Doggone etc.

  8. Guy Rundle


    presumption of innocence in commentary applies when someone’s alive, and/or there is no preponderance of evidence. There is overwhelming evidence of Savile’s predatory behaviour, from dozens of unconnected victims. It’s beyond serious question.

    You should read the article more carefully. I have made the distinction between paedophilia – sex with pre-pubescents – and underage sex with teenagers of 14,15, etc. I agree that the ‘p’ word is overused. But there is clear evidence that Savile sexually abused pre-pubescent children, and so paedophile he was.

  9. dale ross

    Further proof that the Jimmy Savile matter is exposing how our media has become an echo chamber of rumour and purveyor of tabloid type opinion not fact.

    Whatever the reality of the claims against Savile- not yet proved in a court of law but taken as fact by the media including crikey in Guy Rundle’s article, the Pollard Report into why the BBC did not broadcast a program about Savile explains why the ABC 4 Corners should never have stooped to presenting a tabloid style program on this very matter :
    “‘The extent to which we had to rely on the testimony from [[R1]] was stark. She was the only victim in vision we had and would be the face of our allegations and I remained concerned about how well her testimony would stand up to the scrutiny it would get. I was also concerned with the way we had collected the additional evidence from other victims and witnesses, The women were to remain anonymous. The interviews had all been done on the telephone. Some of them were done by a junior researcher who was with us on work experience who I had never worked with. I was also concerned that the evidence could potentially be undermined because some of the women had already discussed the claims amongst themselves via a social networking site. In my personal experience, the strongest testimony from victims of alleged child sexual abuse has to be collected individually, face to face, on neutral territory, with trained interviewers used to not asking leading questions. This was a long way from what we had done.
    For these reasons I emailed Meirion on 30th November saying I wanted to pursue the CPS angle on the story to its end before finally deciding on publishing…’.”
    The ABC program was basically what the BBC refused to broadcast for very solid reasons : it was their failure to follow up that was the problem.
    What the Savile affair is demonstrating from the other side of the world is proof that our once trusted ABC is being reduced to Today Tonight / A Current Affair style sensationalism which also includes news reports as dire as the commercial outlets.

    Yet not a peep from anyone.

  10. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Dale Ross, you make the assertion that claims about Savile are “not yet proved in a court”, as if they might some day get to court. This is a very weak position to argue a defense of Savile – who has no rights whatsoever since he is dead. It might be in bad taste to ‘defame the dead’ but you should know by now that it is a free-for-all.
    I wonder if you are sufficiently moved by all of this to make contact with Savile’s family who also seem to have taken things into their own hands. “Savile’s family arranged for his gravestone to be removed, crushed and the debris thrown into the sea.” Perhaps someone there knew things we will never know. Never want or need to know.