Jimmy Savile and the Death of Innocence UPDATED

Jimmy Savile

Jimmy Savile (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Update — 9 November 2012 Since this was originally posted Lord McAlpine has issued a strongly worded statement that reports linking him to the North Wales child abuse allegations are “wholly false and seriously defamatory”, and independent reports have emerged that he is a victim of mistaken identity.

This blog never named Lord McAlpine, but referred only  to reports about an unnamed “senior Conservative politician”. However, I have decided to delete all references to the case to avoid any risk of spreading a false accusation.

His case makes even more clear the danger I wrote of that “in the shock of discovering the rumours about Savile were true, we start to believe that rumours are always true, and we get into the territory of a witch hunt, where the accusation alone is enough to damn some one to the fire”. The full text of Lord McAlpine’s statement can be found here.

We have all lost a little of our innocence in Britain in recent weeks — ever since it emerged that Jimmy Savile, the most famous children’s television star we have ever had, was a paedophile.

I’m not sure how easy it is to understand if you’re not from one of the generations of children who grew up with Savile on the TV. If you didn’t wait to get picked up from school in the cold, the smell of wet November leaves rotting by the side of the road, watching your breath on the air, impatient to get back to the warm and the television in time for Jim’ll Fix It.

Never talk to strangers, we were told. Never accept anything from a stranger, not a sweet, not a comic, certainly not a lift. If a stranger stops their car next to you, keep walking, get away from them, find an adult you know. And no matter what they say, even if they say they know your parents, never get in the car.

I remember the day a man started hanging around outside the school playground, talking to a few of the children through the fence. A teacher went over to talk to him and sent the children away. And later we were warned, never speak to that man. If he comes again, fetch a teacher immediately.

Why shouldn’t we talk to these people, I asked my mother. Because they’re bad men, she said. But what might they do? Bad things. Like what? Take you away and lock you up. I never asked why they’d want to lock children up, it was frightening enough. It was a scary world out there, and all I wanted was to get back to the safety of my house, and watch Jim’ll Fix It.

And there he was, in all our living rooms, smiling out of the television at us, the man the police now say may have been the most prolific child molester Britain has ever known.

I know there are people who did not have as innocent and protected a childhood as I did, who knew only too well what it was that the “bad men” wanted to do to them. But for millions of us, the reason the Jimmy Savile revelations are so disturbing is because he invaded the places where we felt safest as children.

There’s a lot of talk now about how Savile was hiding in plain sight, how there was always something creepy about him. And it’s true, I can’t remember any of us who actually liked Jimull, as we all thought his name was. He was a strange old man who dressed weirdly and spoke in a strange way, and there was always something slightly off about the way he interacted with the children on his show.

But he was safe, that was the message that was given to us. He was on TV, on a show our parents let us watch, he was trusted with children. He was an important part of our growing understanding of the world, he embodied the idea that not every weirdo was dangerous, that there was such a thing as a harmless old eccentric.

The BBC didn’t just make Jimmy Savile a children’s TV star. They gave him Jim’ll Fix It, a show on which he made children’s dreams come true. You could write in to him asking for anything, and every week Jimull would make a few of those things happen. Children got to sing with their favourite pop star, or sit in a racing car, or meet Doctor Who. A lot of my friends wrote to him. I didn’t, but only because I couldn’t make up my mind what to ask for.

The BBC gave Jimmy Savile a paedophile’s dream job. This was better than handing out sweets, he got to bribe children on a grand scale. Every week, after school, he was grooming an entire nation of children through our television sets.

And now we know the truth, I think we’re all in shock. There have been so many reports that other, as yet unnamed stars were also paedophiles that at times it feels like the entire children’s entertainment world I grew up with was a massive paedophile ring. Everyone is waiting for more names to come out, everyone believes there has been some great cover-up.

Paedophilia has long been a dangerous touchstone in British society, the crime we fear most. It’s not long ago the News of the World  newspaper whipped up vigilante mobs who attacked the homes of suspected paedophiles — in one case attacking the house of a paediatrician because the word sounded similar. And now everyone is playing Hunt the Paedophile again, trying to guess who the unnamed suspects are.

The Labour MP Tom Watson says on his blog he knows of allegations of a “paedophile ring that touched the very heart of a previous government”, and that he has been warned his “personal safety is imperilled” if he investigates further. It sounds extraordinary, like the plot of a thriller: if he’d said it a couple of months ago, no one would have believed him. But after Savile anything seems possible.

I think we are entering very dangerous territory. The case of Jimmy Savile shows that for years we distrusted the testimony of victims, especially where some one powerful was accused. People keep asking how Savile got away with it, but it’s not that hard to see. He was a personal friend of both Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher —  the sort of person most police officers would be more than a little nervous of calling in for questioning, let alone accusing of child molestation.

We can’t go on ignoring victims just because their abusers are powerful or famous. Yet on the other side lies the danger that we start to believe any accusation, just because it is made. That in the shock of discovering the rumours about Savile were true, we start to believe that rumours are always true, and we get into the territory of a witch hunt, where the accusation alone is enough to damn some one to the fire.

We have to find the path between these two dangers, and it is going to be difficult. Jimmy Savile is reaching out of our childhood television screens, like a monster from some long forgotten nightmare.


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