If you grew up in Britain, you could not avoid the on-air antics of Jimmy Savile, a perpetually blond comic disk jockey, television host and media star. He led many children’s programs on the BBC and radio. He helped raise charitable funds for hospitals. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1990. He died last year just a few days short of his 85th birthday.
Now that he’s gone and cannot threaten anyone, the whispered rumors that apparently clung to him for years – to those in the know, which means those in the industry, not the general public – have come out in full voice. The adults who were children when Jimmy Savile molested and raped them are finally coming forth, more than 40 of them so far. If this bears any resemblance to Penn State and Jerry Sandusky, well, that’s no accident. It sometimes takes decades for child abuse victims to get up the courage to witness to the terrors and pain inflicted on them years earlier by powerful men. This is especially true where the perpetrators are extraordinarily popular or revered in their society, as Jimmy Savile was.
The BBC, which employed Savile, admits to being “appalled” at the information presented during last week’s ITV documentary on Savile. It declines, however, to begin a formal inquiry into the illegal pursuits of the star who brought it so much advertising money (a decision they will likely reverse during the coming weeks). This follows the BBC’s last-minute decision last year to drop a 10-minute “Newsnight” story and exposé, when the first victims began to talk following the death of Savile – a BBC decision widely regarded as a cover-up.
What does it take to fool so many people for so long? For one thing, publicity. Savile was in the limelight, all the time. Despite the oddities of his life (he lived with his mother for decades and preserved her clothes after her death; he always wore tracksuits, which one woman surmises was so he could take down his trousers more easily, even, it appears, while he was DJ-ing), he was regarded as a lovable eccentric. He hid in plain sight, in full glare. He was respected for his ability to raise over £40 million for charities, including children’s hospitals. By which, people thought he was well-intentioned toward children. Instead, he was using his charitable work as sheep’s clothing, hiding the hyena he truly was. He used to brag that he was “too big to bring down”, and that may well have been the log in other people’s eyes, the people who knew the truth about Jimmy Savile.
One editor knew about Savile’s sexual abuse of children for a staggering 45 years. Brian Hitchen has said, “So why in all the years that have passed since I was first told did I never write about Savile? Two reasons. In those days newspapers did not write ‘nasty’ stories about celebrities unless the famous had been handsomely paid for their fairly tame revelations. The second reason is because Britain’s libel laws too often help make those like Savile untouchable.”
Untouchable. Because of his image, his fame, his usefulness. Never mind that children were being hurt over and over. At least one of Savile’s victims committed suicide, and her journal indicates that her despair over Savile’s actions was partly a cause.
In all the pain and misery, an interview with Esther Rantzen is perhaps the most horrifying – although the competition for that title is fierce. Rantzen is the founder of ChildLine. ChildLine is a free, confidential 24-hour counseling phone service for children up to age 19 in the UK. The call does not show up on a phone bill, so abusive parents cannot take revenge on their children for calling. Up to 4,500 calls are made to ChildLine each day, and it is a model for similar centers in other nations. Rantzen and others designed ChildLine so that children and youths would be able to reach trained listeners regarding issues such as family matters, substance abuse, bullying, forced marriage . . . anything that distressed them. Including child abuse.
One would think that Rantzen of all people would be horrified at the code of silence protecting Jimmy Savile during his life.
From the Telegraph: “Rantzen has admitted that she heard the rumours at the time, referring to it as ‘green room gossip’, the implication being that it was classier to ignore it. If I have learnt anything from my time working in TV, it is that ‘green room gossip’ is almost always true. The very best source of information on a show is the make-up artists, who see people at their very worst, and make them look their very best. They see everything and hear everything, and many a rumour has started in the make up chair and not stopped until it has reached you sitting at your kitchen table, eating a boiled egg and reading all about it in the paper . . ..
“Esther’s replies left my jaw on the floor. She started by saying that until now it had ‘only been one single child’s word against the word of a television icon’, implying that this meant it was impossible to verify. She went on to say that now it was ‘five adult women’ who had come forward it was easier, and here was the part that started to make my blood boil, that they were ‘cool, credible, sensible women’, who through their lack of emotion were ‘convincing’ to Esther, and so she had started to believe there was some truth to it all.. . . Really? Isn’t that kind of attitude exactly what you have been campaigning against all your professional life?
“The reporter then asked her why she hadn’t raised the rumours with anyone at the BBC. Esther’s response was that it ‘wasn’t relevant to anything I was working on at the time’. . . . She then said she was ‘only a guest’ on Savile’s show, effectively suggesting that child abuse was somebody else’s department. Exactly whose department we’ll never know, as . . . the person who was setting up ChildLine seemed to consider it ‘irrelevant’.”
If a woman who was setting up a phone line for victimized children did not trust the word of a child against a glitzy, longhaired media star, then perhaps, as the writer of this article suggests, perhaps the entire nation was being “groomed” by Jimmy Savile, a man who “played the media like a Stradivarius”.
“One senior BBC presenter at the time said: ‘I always thought [Savile] was a horrible man, quite frankly. We all knew he was up to something – we just didn’t know what.’ Apparently other people knew quite well, and chose to turn a blind eye. They chose not to believe the children who complained, or made it impossible for them to be believed. Which makes it impossible for victims to speak out.
Savile was one man in one nation. Yet the revelations of his behavior are casting light on other men, other media personalities. If anyone thinks this is going away, no, it isn’t. Not in the UK.
Just like the child-abusing priests in the US, however, Jimmy Savile was the tip of an iceberg. Other nations, other media biggies abuse children brought into contact with them. The light needs to be shone everywhere. No child deserves to be abused. Every child deserves to be believed. Every child deserves to have abusers removed and punished.