This last few days I have attempted to watch Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story. I say attempted because I didn't make it through all of the second part, it actually made me physically sick because it was hugely triggering and upsetting. For anyone easily triggered by discussions of rape and child abuse, then I would enter this (the documentary and this piece) with caution. The documentary is harrowing, in so many different ways - I had to switch it off at one point for a break, and as I said got to a particular part in the second one and just couldn't continue (I will at another point). But actually, it is really important, I think, for everyone to watch, and no, not simply because it is interesting to know about this particular case or exciting to sit there stunned and shocked by how easily he got away with it and for how long, but because it tells a tale (in the subtext) about how easily charmed and duped we all are. The friendly, slightly eccentric, down to earth Northerner. Jimmy Savile's celebrity and borderline national hero status is precisely what allowed him to do what he did, and he had that status because often people are unwilling to look beneath the original perceptions they have and query the instinctual trust they place in people. Because...perhaps we just all like to think we are so right and a great judge of character...
I remember a friend of mine relaying a story to me about her best friend's brother. He had been charged with the sexual assault and rape of a number of under 16 year old girls and it had obviously rocked the family. You can only imagine the shock at finding out that someone you are close to; your brother, father, son, partner was actually a paedophile. It would be very hard to stomach. Initially, he had denied it, but the evidence was overwhelming and he is now in prison. A comment that the friend I was talking to made really struck me and ties in with my main concern with the Savile case. She said she was so shocked, she really did think it would come out as all being untrue because he was such a good guy: he was from a good family (nice upper to middle class, Cotswolds family - old money style) deeply intelligent, funny and, most interesting to me, he was really into climbing and outdoors stuff - for context she too was very academically intelligent, very upper to middle class and into climbing, and she qualified this by making the statement that by and large the climbing community is full of really decent people, it was one of the things she loved about climbing...
Now, for me, this is a massive part of the issue. When we meet, or even view (think celebrities and politicians) people who have similar interests to us, or who occupy certain identities, we immediately like them and decide certain things about them. Which unfortunately leaves a gaping void of opportunity for anyone clever enough to construct a persona that appears genuine; trustworthy, and supply the perfect cloak behind which to hide a multitude of wrong doings.
Jimmy Savile caught the attention of the British public in a very particular way. He was an eccentric (which is seen as a quality at the heart of what it is to be British), he wasn't politically correct (which in a culture that is dominated by a particular faux and saccharine form of politeness, and the rise in political correctness, he must have seemed so tantalisingly refreshing), he came across as a down to earth, working class, Northerner (which gave him an air of authenticity somehow, because somewhere embedded in our social consciousness is this idealised commoner/working class stereotype whose honesty and living close to your truthness is something we should all aspire to). He also happened to (despite the eccentric clothes and hair) be a fairly good looking man. I say this as objectively as I can. I obviously feel a sense of utter répulsion whenever I see his image now, as most of us do, but... I can appreciate that he had what could be termed (in his youth especially) a traditionally 'attractive' face and physique. And good looks are a currency in this world.
There is a part, in the documentary, where he decides he needs a new career direction, so he made a list of all the things he was good at and worked outwards from there... One cannot help but wonder how structured and far reaching his plans were. I mean, did he first think...how can I ensure I have access to children, unhampered....and which jobs would be the best for that? And then think, what skills do I have that could work well in those positions? I bet he never could have dreamed though how well this plan would work. I mean, to have captured the hearts and trust of the nation in the way he did, of the Prime Minister, of the key holders to children's homes and institutions that were there to protect and house the vulnerable and unstable. Never could he have imagined how easy it would have been to live out his darkest fantasies of raping and assaulting young girls, boys and vulnerable women. Figures range... It is claimed that his victims run up into the 500s, but I think it was specifically around 214 counts of sexual assault (including rape) that he was charged with, ranging age wise from a 2 year old to a 75 year old.
Yes, this story is particularly shocking because he was a household name, a national treasure and so prolific but really it is just another story of a man in power that used his position to satisfy his lewd, abusive and ultimately violent urges, without a care for who he hurt. What makes it so awful is that despite so many people saying, yea, but we always knew there was something wrong with him, whether that is your mate in the pub, your old school friends, other celebrities that knew him at the time or people who interviewed him, the fact remains that he was allowed to continue, and there is a reason for that. He was powerful. He had too much power for most people to risk rocking their own boat by addressing their concerns. And those that eventually did try to were largely shut down because...how can you persuade a nation they were wrong?
When I was 14, I worked at a local radio station for my school work experience. I wanted to be a journalist, so I was very excited that they accepted me. Whilst there I developed a huge crush on one of the news reporters... I will call him Jim for the sake of anonymity, because he now, funnily enough, works for the BBC. Currently, I work in education, so I understand how it goes. How easy it could be for a minor to develop a crush on an adult and how awkward that might be. But there is zero quibbling really about how that should be dealt with. If you are aware that a child has developed an unhealthy attachment towards you, you do everything you can to maintain distance between you and that child and be extra firm about professional boundaries. This also needs to be reported and shared as a concern. You don't fan the flames of that crush by taking them under your wing and developing a closer relationship with them, which is exactly what Jim did... He was married, in his late 20s at the time and talked to me often, privately when we were in his office together or out getting lunch together, about so many different aspects of his life... One conversation I specifically remember is when he told me about how his wife didn't love him, about how crushing it was for him, as a man, to know she didn't find him sexually attractive anymore. That he knew she was having affairs. I don't even know if that was true, looking back, but I remember at the time feeling a) so flattered that he felt I was grown up enough for him to talk to me so openly about this stuff (I had no other adults in my life I could talk to openly or who trusted me enough to talk with me openly) and b) It made my crush on him take on a deeper and more...sexual edge... I actively wanted to touch him, to show him how attractive I thought he was. I felt he needed me. Which was, I imagine, part of the plan...
He arranged it so that I could stay on working at the radio station for longer than my 3 weeks work experience, so I went in at weekends and evenings. My parents thought little of it, they just felt I was lucky I suppose and that it might be a good thing career wise. For almost a year and a half it continued like this, him fanning the flames of my crush, me telling him everything about my life (how empty it was, how lonely I was, about the domestic violence I was living amidst), until I started doing my GCSEs and I needed to stop working there and focus on that. Our contact petered out because, I suppose we didn’t have social media or mobile phones then... It would probably have been different now.
I started college in the September and lost my virginity to my first boyfriend there within a matter of weeks... I hadn't heard from Jim for quite a few months at this point. I was very sad, and assumed he had forgotten about me. Out of the blue he contacted me, phoned me at home and asked if I wanted to start doing some more reporting work with him now my GCSEs were done. I was very excited and flattered. He asked if he could take me out for a meal to discuss it. I was surprised that my mum said yes, but to be honest I think she just saw it as a good opportunity for me, which if that is what he meant, it would have been.
He took me to Pizza Hut and I remember he bought me a cider. It felt very grown up and like a date. One of the many things we talked about was boyfriends...he was eager to hear, so I told him about the guy I'd lost my virginity to... How it wasn't what I thought it would be like, and how that guy had since gone off with someone else... He then took his cue and opened up - told me he had always wanted me and how he had struggled over that year or so I worked at the station to keep his hands off me. Told me I was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen and if he had had the pleasure of taking my virginity he would not have disrespected me that way, but that I was too young and he had to be responsible. Good spiel Mr Jim - I literally threw myself at him and we had sex in his car in the car park.
We went on to have a sexual relationship for a few months, which did not feel like I was being coerced at all. I desperately wanted it and him. The point at which it stopped was when he invited me to what he said was his other flat one afternoon... A DJ from that radio station was there, drinking and I noticed some video making equipment (this was the early 90s, so it was old school and quite big) and there seemed to be something unspoken going on between them. I felt uncomfortable immediately. The DJ asked me if I wanted a drink and for some reason, the fact that there were 3 glasses out, on the table made my instincts kicked in and I turned and ran out of the flat... Jim caught up with me and apologised... He said something along the lines of he assumed that because I was so articulate and mature, that I was more grown up than I was, that he didn't mean to scare me, it was just meant to be a bit of fun. I felt genuinely bad, because I wanted to be grown up, I wanted him to think I was mature. I remember crying and saying sorry, because I felt I'd acted like a little girl and let him down. We never saw or spoke to each other again and it wasn't until many years later that I understood how wrong what he had done was.
Yes, I was 16. He waited till I was 16 (clever man), and he didn't force me into sex, he didn't need to after his successful period of grooming and fanning. It actually wasn't illegal what he did. It is not in anyway on a par with what Jimmy Savile and countless other men with power have done. But perhaps that was precisely because he didn't have the power behind him that Savile did. He knew he had to be savvy about it, so he couldn't be held legally accountable for anything he did. I think the decision to ultimately try and make a porn film where both him and the DJ fucked a slightly drunk teenager, in a 'barely legal' type way, was them stepping into dangerous waters, and Jim had evidently misjudged the power he had over me, because I walked (ran) out. But how often does this shit happen? And is it simply the case that the cleverest of predators factor in how much power they have, ie, if Jim hadn't just been a lowly, local radio station journalist, and had the swagger of say... Someone working for the BBC, would he have just gone for it when I was 14? Would Jimmy Savile have been able to get away with what he did without the huge amounts of power he exerted over, the nation basically...? No, we all know the answer to that. How many other Jims and Jimmys are there out there, operating way beneath or just on the line of what is legally acceptable (but is still morally dubious and corrupt)?
I think for me, this whole conversation is more about the power we, as a society and as individuals, give to people. The strange way we decide people's worth, trustworthiness, based upon certain ideas we have embedded within our consciousness. Jim was a Geordie, and Geordie accents, as with Yorkshire accents, have a similar quality of salt of the earth, trustworthiness. Jim had a way of making people feel at ease because he was a respectable, white, middle class man, but one without any airs and graces. He was...attractive in his own way and everyone loved him. I think back to my time at the radio station... How many other adults there could see what was going on? And did any of them care? For all they knew, he might have been sleeping with me then, I imagine it was common knowledge that I had a crush on him because I was probably quite obvious with it. Yet it was accepted that we spent an awful lot of time alone together. Because he was lovely Jim...
I think it has become glaringly obvious we have an issue with sexual predators and sexual crimes in this country. Yes, in most countries, but I'm focusing on here, the UK for now. I don't think we fully understand how ingrained and widespread it is, but suffice to say it is a big enough problem to warrant some deeper intervention and introspection than simply poring over historic crimes. I am left wondering now, as I write this, if I should in fact report Jim to Operation Yewtree (or whatever it is called now). I could, but really, he didn't break any laws. I was a willing participant and he didn't touch me until I was 16. What I think needs to be happening with all of us, is how we arrive at the judgements we do with people, with anyone. Because those baseline judgements we have that person A is essentially a good guy because of X, Y and Z, often stops us evaluating their words and actions correctly. If Jim had been, for example, less immediately likeable, I doubt he would have gotten away with spending as much time as he did, alone with a teenage girl in a place of work. Maybe my mum would have been less likely to allow me to go out for dinner with him. Similarly, if Boris Johnson didn't have that slightly silly, laughable, lovable buffoonness about him, his overt and obvious racism, sexism, classism would have meant more in regards to him being elected. His lying would have seen him removed by now. But no, none of that really mattered because he, like Savile, has a well crafted persona that strikes into the hearts of, well...enough British people to allow him to become Prime Minister. And look at him now, the first PM ever to have broken the law. Will he manage to bullshit his way out of this one too with his charm and bluster? Perhaps not, because now he has actually been shown to have done something that has wounded the nation in a profound way. Breaking the laws he created during the pandemic lockdowns, that effectively separated thousands of families, isolated many vulnerable people and had an incredibly detrimental effect on everyone's mental health. Most of us stuck to these laws and struggled through because it was the right thing to do, in order to keep infection rates down, but everyone has at least 1 story of something they had to miss out on throughout lockdown: a funeral, birth, seeing their family over Christmas, friends, or simply having support when going through hard times. So for Boris to have not just broken this law, but to have lied about his breaking it too, may well be a bridge too far for us Brits. I sense that laughable buffoon act has run its course now, but we shall see...
How as a nation do we protect our children, when we see time and time again how easily duped and misled we are? When we put personality above everything else. Whether it is in politics, the celebrities we idolise or the people we meet that we instinctively trust because...they tick certain boxes inside us. We need to be able to step back from our own internal bias and be actively critical. But that is not an easy task, I realise, and it is by far not the only issue.
I was told, recently, that it was only in the 90s that it became illegal for a teacher to date a 6th form student, because...i imagine that was in line with the laws around age of consent. Nevermind the obvious fact that a teacher exerts a huge amount of power over a student and is inherently abusive for a teacher to do that. The fact that that happened, only became illegal so recently says something about how we as a culture view innocence and abuses of power. Those abuses of power still, obviously, go on in schools. Even at the school I work at, a Deputy Head was fired a few years ago for sexually assaulting a child.
How did he get to that position in the first place? He was there before my time, so I never met him, but I assume through ticking enough boxes in enough people for him to not be as thoroughly scrutinised as he should have been. I have heard similar stories about so many schools, so my school in itself is not a specific issue, this is a societal thing. The reality is that children are most likely to be abused by someone they know and trust. Whether that is in a school, hospital, children's home, community group or even in their own homes. How do we ensure that children are not exposed to abuse and predatory adults? I don't have the answer to this, I wish I did because yes, I myself have 2 children. But we need to be taking this far more seriously than we do, than we have, because currently our children are not safe.
As an anecdote to end with, as some food for thought. I’d read, a few years ago, an article about a woman who wanted some psychological support and help for her teenage son, who had been displaying worrying signs that he felt a sexual attraction towards young children. He had never acted on it, but he himself was aware of it and it concerned him. There wasn’t any service set up for that, and the reality being that the word paedophile, rightly so, carries with it such shock and disgust, there are possibly not many who would be up front about it. But... Perhaps if there was more support available, to those who wanted it, that might be a way towards not only helping them, but also understanding how a paedophile’s mind works and therefore make it easier to identify those who don’t want to be caught and want to act on their impulses. We will never get rid of paedophiles, or indeed sexual predators of all kinds, but what we can do is to ensure we are not maintaining a culture that allows them to commit crimes with relative ease.