Why Savile could prove to be toxic for the BBC & for an era of light entertainment


On cultures of complicity, and why we need a wider debate about control and consent

UPDATE: Before I start, if anyone you know needs help on all things child protection in the light of Savile or anything else, contact the NSPCC.

It’s difficult to know where to start on such a sensitive subject. First of all my heart goes out to the victims – the identities and final numbers (so that they can get support) of which may never be known. Earlier today, this update from ITV News reveals the potential scale of what has been uncovered. (That number has since shot up even further). It’s frightening.

One bad apple or a rotten barrel?

That is what some are asking. How come the allegations that were made were not properly followed up? It’s not as if it wasn’t well-known – damned by the pen in his own hand? What of the publisher – the logo “Coronet” can be seen on the cover of the Daily Record article – the logo being a former imprint of Hodder and Stoughton – closed in 2004 but relaunched in 2010. Why did the publishers not call foul? Did any of the readers at the time, and if so, what happened to their complaints?

Following the police inquiry, the BBC has announced that it will conduct its own inquiries following the completion of the police’s work.

Poison for an entire era of light entertainment

That is what the BBC – and possibly ITV face. And let’s face it. Anyone over the age of 35 who had access to a TV is likely have grown up with Savile and friends as being the mainstay of early Saturday evening TV. At weekends I used to stay with my grandparents as a child – they lived just up the road and had a much more easy-going manner than my over-worked parents. Jim’ll Fix It was one of the staple TV programmes – alongside the likes of The Price is Right, Noel’s House Party, The A-Team, Catch Phrase, Stars in their eyes, You Bet!, Gladiators and the like. We liked the game shows because people like us could be winners too. Children like us could have their dreams come true. To find out twenty-thirty years after those shows were broadcast that the reality was far darker and more frightening than any of us could have imagined sends a chill down my spine.

To those to say that ‘it was different in those days…’

Just not in the way you are thinking. There were only 3-4 TV channels. We didn’t have the internet or social media. What people talked about other than football (with my group of school friends) was what was on the telly, or what new film at the cinema or on video (remember those?) they had seen. The BBC and ITV were huge institutions – far greater than anyone can possibly imagine if you’re one of the people who has grown up with the internet.

You couldn’t just ‘boycott’ the BBC or ITV – or TV for that matter. I knew a couple of families whose parents did just that: No TV in the house. I look back on my own behaviour as a 6-7 year old and cringe when I recall moaning at my parents to ask if we can all go home only we were missing Children’s BBC or Children’s ITV (as it was then). Again, massive massive institutions in their own right. It’s difficult to emphasise just how much influence those broadcasters had in an era of so little choice. There was a small window from 3:45pm to 5:40pm that were handed over to children during term time. That was it. Hence why the broadcasters of that era are remembered so fondly – and that when there is a case that one of them is shown to have done some horrible – criminal even – things, the sense of shock and outrage is that much more intense.

But what about attitudes?

What about the law? The age of consent has been the same – 16 – since 1885. Was the attitude about abiding by the law of the land different back then to what it is today? Was the principle of ‘someone has made a very serious allegation and it must be investigated by the police and/or competent authorities’ different back then to what it is today?

No. The law is the law. Otherwise, what else do we have?

In terms of what would have followed had Savile been reported, @FleetStreetFox makes a number of interesting observations in her column in The Mirror. What Foxy’s column shows is that the actions (or lack of) from institutions was even more scandalous – whether the time it took for Parliament to grant anonymity to complainants to basic things such as taking complaints seriously. Cultures of complicity?

Slavery. “Yeah…things were different back them”. Colonialism. “Yeah…things were different back then”. Racism. “Yeah…things were different back them”. Homophobia. “Yeah…things were different back then”. Disability-hate. “Yeah…things were different back then.” Yes – it made those fighting again oppression from all of the above pioneers in their field – trying to change attitudes, mindset and even the law – against the odds. The case of institutional failures relating to Savile wasn’t anything like “Yeah…things were different back then”. There was a basic failure to carry out what the law required both back then and of today. Was that different back then? No. It was exactly the same as today. That is what is scandalous.

Will this be for the BBC & light entertainment what Leveson was to newspapers?

It’s not looking good for the BBC & the light entertainment industry. Given the nature of the duopoly between the BBC and ITV, the latter could find itself embroiled in the scandal too. ITV would be well-advised to launch their own investigation if anything to confirm that none of the stars working for them in that era are implicated.

This also speaks volumes about the culture of ‘industry bubbles.’ I’ve lived in a few. Bubbles seem to generate their own cultural norms and standards – ones which for those outside the bubble can ‘have issues with’. The WaG & bling culture that orbits top footballers? The celebrity-world bubble? The bankers’ bubble & the bonuses? The Whitehall & Westminster bubble? Think MPs’ expenses. That is why:

  • Transparency is essential
  • Reporting from inside the bubble in easily-understandable language is essential

In part it’s what I try to do with this blog – to clear through the fog and confusion that can easily be thrown up by people and institutions – whether deliberately or unwittingly. Again, with the latter when you are inside a bubble it can be difficult to differentiate between when you are communicating in ‘bubble speak’ (or jargon) and when you are not. It happened to me yesterday at a training seminar I was running. I assumed people in the room knew what one of these social media ‘rating’ things was – but none of them did and one had to pull me up.

As for the actions being taken by the police and the BBC Something tells me that their conclusions won’t be the end of this. The scale could be huge – and may well require something far more comprehensive and wide-ranging about the cultures of media organisations in relation to child protection. Having recently become a governor of my former primary school, how institutions deal with issues of child protection are of even more interest to me than before – to which I’ll be reading @Itsmotherswork ‘s past blogposts with interest to see what my school can learn.

Is there a wider sexism/commodification of young women issue here too?

Yes – and we only need to look at the case of the teacher than ran off with – or to be legally correct, abducted (as defined by the Child Abduction Act 1984) a 15 year old school girl. Foxy is spot on with her observations on her blog. Yet as recently as 2002 the media were slobbering all over Charlotte Church over her ‘rear of the year’ award despite it only having turned 16 a few months earlier. I would reference it, but it comes with pictures so would rather not. So see if you can find it in this badly formatted Guardian page.

The point being that in law and media-land, everything hinges on a childs – or a girl’s 16th birthday. If that teacher had waited until the girl had turned 16 before running off with her, what would have the reaction been? “Get in there my son”?!? “Ha ha! He dumped the old banger for a younger model!”?!?!

One of the things a former flatmate taught me about the sexism & abuse debate was the issue of control – and who is in control. Aside from what happened physically, what strikes me about the allegations around Savile is how little control the victims had – both at the time and in the tormenting years afterwards. That is why it is ever so important to teach adults and children about the very basics of physical consent in its widest sense: The principle that no one can lay a finger on you without your consent. @ItsMothersWork couldn’t have put it better:

“Talking about consent with a young child doesn’t involve talking about sex. Remember tickling games? How tickling starts out funny and giggly, and then it starts to be painful and horrid? Remember writhing and squirming and yelling for the tickler to stop? If you want your child to learn about consent, be the tickler that stops straight away when it stops being fun.”

Isn’t it time society had a broader conversation about control and consent?


3 thoughts on “Why Savile could prove to be toxic for the BBC & for an era of light entertainment

  1. I think there is an issue around the complicity of the media and police locally at the time in Leeds and Manchester at the time and possible London as well. Lots of rumours were known but no action taken.

  2. It is worth remembering/pointing out that, until the 1980s, we did not talk about child abuse. Children had nobody to go to, and the subject would be brushed under the carpet. We should not see the case of Savile in isolation from, say, all the abuse that happened at children’s homes, by clergy etc, as though such things only occurred in one area of society.

    And it is equally worth bearing in mind that domestic violence was another thing that society in general turned a blind eye to (‘you’ve made your bed’) until approximately the same time frame.

    So the culture really has changed a great deal.

  3. Let me preface this comment by saying I don’t mean to diminish in any way what these girls went through or the severity of the allegations. It is right and proper that the police are investigating, although I have no idea what the ultimate outcome of that investigation could be as the man is dead.

    The Saville allegations are being used by some as a stick to beat the BBC, and comparing the BBC or ANY business environment today with that of the 70’s and 80’s strikes me as absurd. Yes, most workplaces were horribly misogynistic, there was a culture in place everywhere that treated women as second class citizens, and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn at all that there had been some unspoken complicity covering up the “eccentricities” (as the abuse of teenage girls would have been seen by those in power at the time) of one of their stars…. since then there has been 40 years of progress.

    The BBC today is one of the most politically correct (for want of a better phrase) institutions around. Businesses have been dragged kicking and screaming through law into not discriminating against women, and harrassment of the sort which was commonplace 40 or 50 years ago would land them in court today, and rightly so.

    Judging the modern BBC on behaviours in the 70s and 80s is mis-conceived, and being used by those with an axe to grind to damage the reputation of one of our greatest treasures.

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