LAST year, I read Dan Davies’ book In Plain Sight cover-to-cover pretty much in one go. His account of the Jimmy Savile scandal was compelling not merely because he is a good, forensic writer, but because, having spent so much time in the DJ’s company, he was able to delve into the psychology of the man whose sexual offending left a trail of destruction across the years.
And what a devastating portrait he produced. Davies’ take on Savile is that he got involved in charity work not only for the credibility, influence and access to victims it afforded him, but also because he believed God operated a theological accounting system where wicked deeds could be offset by good ones. So long as he could keep up the fund-raising, Savile figured, St Peter would turn a blind eye to the sexual assaults, the rape, the possible necrophilia, and wave him on through the Pearly Gates.
There was more. Savile was a man who was hiding a huge secret, except he wasn’t really hiding it. In fact, he talked about his offending all the time, sometimes obliquely, sometimes not. His abuse was flagrant, taking place in his caravan, his flat, in BBC studios across the county and even, once, on-camera, and he alluded to it compulsively in conversation with friends and journalists. Apropos of nothing, Savile would bring up sex with underage girls, his vehement denials accompanied by a nudge nudge, wink wink to his audience. “Tourette’s of the soul,” Davies called it.
In Plain Sight gives us an unparalleled insight into Savile’s dysfunctional character, his obsession with death and the way he got off on power. What it doesn’t do is offer an adequate explanation as to why all those who knew – or ought to have known – about his behaviour did nothing to prevent it. Savile’s life was “a landscape of red warning flags” which those who encountered him chose not to see. Even Davies himself was waiting for the big reveal: the one piece of information that would expose the wizard behind the curtain, apparently oblivious to how much he already knew.
It’s almost as if all those who had the power to act fell prey to a version of the bystander effect – the psychological phenomenon that means the more people who witness a terrible event unfolding, the less likely it is that anyone will intervene. Aware Savile’s behaviour was inappropriate, they saw other people putting up with it and decided it must be tolerable. Now they are finding ways to excuse their failure. Even that phrase, “hiding in plain sight”, which long before Davies’ book had become the default way of describing the Savile affair, is a kind of excuse, implying that the issue was his cunning rather than personal and institutional cowardice.
Dame Janet Smith’s draft report into how Savile and Stuart Hall were able to carry out sexual abuse at the BBC – leaked to the website Exaro last week – does little to enhance our understanding. On one level, it is damning, suggesting that a “culture of deference” at the corporation gave Savile the freedom to abuse at will, while deterring those lower down the pecking order from raising their concerns. But on another level, the report appears to be just another means of letting those at the top off the hook. If the leak is to be believed, Smith accepts no-one in a senior position knew and says the corporation was not to blame for failing to expose Savile’s “sexual deviancy”.
How can this be? Even if ordinary employees were too scared to share their suspicions, the truth was staring the BBC in the face. The clues were there in the series of incriminating interviews he gave to the Sun in 1983; they were there in his book God’ll Fix It, where he argues that men are at the mercy of the desires they have been given.
The Sun interviews were enough to prompt civil servants to urge Margaret Thatcher not to knight Savile, but not enough to galvanise the BBC. If Smith is right, and those at the top knew nothing, then their ignorance was wilful. If they felt unable to act for lack of hard evidence, it was because they chose not to seek it out. After all, the footage of Sylvia Edwards being groped on Top Of The Pops was first broadcast in 1976. In it, the 19-year-old can be heard squealing and seen trying to evade Savile’s clutches as he smirks and says: “A fellow could get used to this.” No wonder she is furious.
Smith’s most worrying finding is that the “culture of deference” she identifies continues to exist at the BBC and that a sexual predator could still get away with it. The way the corporation behaved in the aftermath of Savile’s death – pulling the Newsnight investigation – suggested its chief priority was to protect its own reputation. But the idea that, after everything that has happened, it is not fostering an atmosphere where whistleblowing is encouraged defies belief.
Despite all the national introspection, we may never truly understand the toxic mix of celebrity, power, fear and corruption that led Savile’s prolific offending to be tolerated by so many for so long, but what the BBC, and the other institutions involved can and must do is to ensure it never happens again.
The only way they can achieve this is to make it clear that no-one, however popular, is untouchable, that whistleblowers will be welcomed and that all concerns will be followed up, not swept under the carpet to avoid a scandal or dismissed as the over-reactions of silly young girls.