The end of innocence?

Channel 4’s new drama National Treasure has brought the issue of celebrity paedophiles back to public attention. What does the most notorious and well-documented of these cases – that of Jimmy Savile – tell us about the role of media celebrity and children’s culture?

When it comes to holiday reading, most sensible, well-adjusted people pick up a pile of three-for-the-price-of-two novels at the airport bookshop. For better or worse, I tend to take things that will give my brain something to chew on. And so it was that I found myself in some beautiful locations in Southern Italy this summer reading all 600 pages of In Plain Sight: The Life and Lies of Jimmy Savile by Dan Davies.

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While it’s eminently readable, this is not a book you want to escape into – more one you want to escape from. I felt almost soiled while reading it, and I kept hoping that its subject would die prematurely and put me out of my misery. It’s clear that the book’s author also hated Savile, despite his extensive contact with him, which makes the book interestingly different from a great many biographies.

For non-UK readers of this blog, I should explain that Jimmy Savile was a very famous British DJ and children’s TV presenter. He is one of a series of celebrity paedophiles who have been exposed retrospectively – and in Savile’s case, not until after his death in 2011. Others include the once much-loved children’s TV presenter Rolf Harris, along with several other DJs, TV presenters and pop music personalities who came to fame in the 1960s and 1970s. There have also been several wrongful accusations, although it remains clear that the pop culture of the time was by no means as innocent as some of us might nostalgically wish to imagine.

The term paedophile literally means ‘lover of children’. As such, it’s not clear quite how well this would apply to Savile: he pursued and molested countless teenage girls, but Davies’ biography shows that he positively hated children.

The causes of paedophilia are far from clear. Most public discussion of the issue (not least in relation to children and social media) defines paedophiles as simply ‘evil’ or ‘monstrous’ – a summary judgment that seems quite unhelpful, not least in terms of identifying how we might prevent or treat such behaviour. In Plain Sight offers little insight in this respect. The ‘real’ Jimmy Savile remains obscure throughout; and Davies admits that he never really gets behind his ‘wacky’ public persona. Indeed, it would seem that Savile’s inscrutability was critical: as the title of the book suggests, he was never publically exposed in his lifetime, even though he ran astonishing risks.

How might we understand the role of media in this phenomenon? In light of my interest in children’s media – and specifically in children’s television – I might have been inclined to read the Savile case almost metaphorically, as a kind of challenge to the sentimental nostalgia that tends to infect discussions of the history of children’s media. Here, one might think, is the grim underside of the fake, manufactured innocence of so much adult-produced media for children.

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This isn’t an unfamiliar argument. It colours almost everything we might say today about Lewis Carroll, for example, or Shirley Temple or Michael Jackson. Writers like Ann Higonnet and James Kincaid have traced the history of images of children being used as objects of erotic contemplation by adults. Indeed, paedophile desire would seem to depend precisely on the notion of innocence that it seeks to defile.

The cases of Savile and Harris are part of a broader history of children’s media – perhaps especially in the BBC, although not only there. One of the early producers of Doctor Who, John Nathan Turner, appears to have been a prodigious child molester; and, even more disturbingly, so were some of the ‘uncles’ who hosted the very earliest children’s radio and TV programmes of the 1940s and 1950s. In these contexts, paedophile activity was not just present, but apparently rife, and perhaps even tolerated by a management that preferred to turn a blind eye. It’s certainly very hard to believe the protestations of some of Savile’s managers in the BBC that they were unaware of his activities, or at least not suspicious about his ‘creepy’ behaviour.

This is a fairly repulsive history, but generalizing it – and suggesting that it tells us something broader about relations between adults and children’s culture – could run the risk of over-reading it. Rather, as I will argue later, Savile’s case might actually tell us more about the nature of celebrity, and what can happen when people with enormous power find themselves with an almost infinite opportunity for abuse.

An alternative, perhaps quite opposing, view would be to see the whole thing as some kind of media-driven moral crusade. This is the line taken by the polemicist Frank Furedi. A former Marxist turned libertarian, Furedi is the leading guru of the so-called Institute of Ideas, whose predictable liberal-baiting has a small but very vociferous cult following. (The prominence of the IoI is a revealing symptom of the culture of opinion in contemporary media – a topic to which I shall return…).

Furedi’s booklet, published at the height of the Savile scandal in 2013, challenges what he calls ‘the hysterical climate of child-abuse obsession’. (There’s a summary of the key points on his website.) Furedi makes some interesting points about the deeper anxieties that are being played out here – not least the way the scandal provides a means for an ongoing rewriting of history, and of the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s. He’s also correct to challenge some of the hyperbolic rhetoric of such moral crusades, and to emphasise the danger of the authorities immediately believing all allegations of this kind. However, Furedi was justifiably reviled by several critics for his apparent lack of interest in the experience of Savile’s victims.

I might be prepared to agree that DJs having sex with fifteen-year-old girls who queue up outside their dressing rooms is not quite the same as abusing toddlers – although a power-relationship obtains in both cases. However, the claim that Savile was a victim of a media witch-hunt is hard to sustain when reading about his abuse of hospital patients and vulnerable teenagers in institutions, or his acts of necrophilia in hospital mortuaries. (Although Furedi’s cohorts would undoubtedly accuse me of moral authoritarianism for saying so…)

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Most instances of child abuse are committed by people well known to the victim, and many occur in the context of the family home. But the key point about Savile’s abuse is that much of it happened in institutional settings where he was granted power by virtue of representing those institutions. As I have suggested, it is simply implausible that the people who allowed him that power would not have known about what he was doing, or at least strongly suspected it.

Ultimately, it was Savile’s celebrity that gave him the opportunity to commit his crimes, and made it difficult to challenge him. Yet it was not simply his fame or his status as a ‘national treasure’ that protected him, but his institutional position, and his close relationships with powerful people. One of the most astonishing things about Davies’ book is his recounting of Savile’s relationships with his powerful friends – regularly spending New Year’s Eve with Margaret Thatcher, being Prince Charles’s private mentor, even being ‘knighted’ by the Vatican. It was this that enabled him to operate ‘in plain sight’ – while giving plenty of public indications (both positively and by protesting too much) as to his behind-the-scenes behaviour.

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So if the Savile case might not tell us much about childhood or children’s culture, it does seem to reveal a good deal about media, celebrity and power. It’s also interesting to revisit in light of Channel 4’s new drama about historic sexual abuse, National Treasure, which started this week – and which (having done my background reading) I hope to review once it’s completed.