Three things to bear in mind about Jimmy Savile and one about the BBC

The only way the BBC can adequately address the crisis it is mired in is to heed ourBeeb's calls to transform itself into an institution that belongs and is accountable to the public who trust, admire and pay for it.

In all the arguments about who to blame for the Savile scandal there are three things to bear in mind, the most difficult being the third, our own complicity.

First, Savile was a misogynist hangover from the patriarchal mores of the sixties when women and teenage girls were “chicks” to be “pulled”. As everyone is telling his or her Savile stories, I’ll share mine. A friend who was working for New Left Review / New Left Books in the early seventies got into Top of the Pops. She reported that Savile had propositioned her on sight. She declined to sleep with him. If news of it reached me, his promiscuity was very widely known! I’d assumed, however, it was consensual not criminal, a kind of brutal, taking advantage of ‘England is a wild country behind its hedgerows’ attitude prevalent at the time. Chauvinism thrives on such thoughtlessness. What was wrong was not the release from puritanism that allowed adults to have happy intercourse how they pleased - which was the liberation of the sixties. But the early and coerced sexualisation of young girls and young women, pressured to please men who assumed right to take whatever they wanted; and the licence that a corporation run by men afforded to one of their biggest stars, with the lack of any sense of duty of care.

Second, permissiveness and even encouragement of this not-illegal wrongdoing cast a protective shadow over much darker deeds. Savile is alleged to have raped young girls and abused minors, invalids and the disabled in a non-stop whirlwind of criminal inhumanity. Suzanne Moore argues what happened to the victims must not be cast aside in a hunt to blame the men in suits. However, he paraded his impunity, confident that Jim-can-get-away-with-it. This too was known, if not so widely that it reached people like me. As the tabloids pillory the BBC for its role in the affair, salivating as they fulfil their supposed ‘watchdog’ role, it is salutatory to remember that they – the hunters of paedophiles - knew all along that Jimmy was a story. It wasn’t just hidden, it was actively ignored and accepted rather than investigated. That’s why it is also important to ask why those who knew didn’t protest.

However, this risks making it a problem with them. The third issue is why did we permit the obvious? Why did ‘we the public’ admire a blatantly bad man? You only needed to look twice at his clothes, his glasses, his conjuror’s apparatus of decoys and diversions, his bling and his shell-suits and cultivated white-blond hair to sense he was repellent. Imagine getting onto a bus filled with Jims grinning with his arrogance and self-aggrandisement. It would be unbearable for him to represent the human race - and at some level all who saw him knew it.

How, then, did he get away with it?

It was thanks to a form of celebrity that shares and rejoices in the whiff of wickedness that surrounds misogyny. The cult (and love) of chauvinist celebrity forgives misdemeanours ahead of time. It encourages men especially to project longings to be outside the law onto the figure of fame. The media may provide the cult’s priests, but the congregation is compliant and provides the energy. Today celebrities seem to build entire reputations on ‘getting away with it’ as ‘we the public’ continue to collude in a worship of strong and powerful men who break the rules.

The public culture that fêted Savile still exists. It’s unfair to him but one way to identify this is thanks to Boris Johnson, and this should in no way be read as tarring Boris with Savile's depravity, crimes or suggesting any moral equivalence between the two men. Nauseated by the veneration of Boris at last month’s Conservative Party Conference, Max Hastings denounced him in the Daily Mail, Hastings had employed Boris and claims a long-time, close-up knowledge. It is hard to believe there has been a more ferocious attack on politician in occupation of high office that spotlights his promiscuity so prominently and persistently: the article is littered with “sexual affairs”, “blackmail” “testimonials from ex-lovers”, “bonkability”.

"Most politicians are ambitious and ruthless, but Boris is a gold medal egomaniac. I would not trust him with my wife nor — from painful experience — with my wallet. It is unnecessary to take any moral view about his almost crazed infidelities, but it is hard to believe that any man so conspicuously incapable of controlling his own libido is fit to be trusted with controlling the country… He is also a far more ruthless, and frankly nastier, figure than the public appreciates. He is not a man to believe in, to trust or respect save as a superlative exhibitionist."

There is a shared chauvinism here (the way Hastings’s refers to his wife) and surely it must be necessary to take a moral view, otherwise the whole diatribe is irrelevant. But if his portrait is at all accurate, Boris is cashing in on our culture’s ongoing, permissive misogyny. To repeat, I am not implying Johnson indulges in Saville’s criminal activities. I’m interested in the first and the third issues. For what Jim and Boris share is the public’s permissive, forgiving attitude towards transgression. For those who extend this to Julian Assange there is even a white-hair angle.

On point one, Johnson’s partners are adult, consenting women, not minors. What I want to get at is point three, we all know. By assenting to his  “mischievous” droit du seigneur, the public absolves the Mayor. We rightly despise bankers. Boris tells us to stop “bashing them” and his popularity rises - what a rake, he would say that wouldn’t he! (But they are robbing us.) We express disgust at the behaviour of Murdoch’s News International. Boris invites the mogul perpetrator whose machine corrupted the police, hacked the innocent and covered up its own crimes, to watch the Olympics by his side. This really was a blatant signal of where his heart lies. And the Tory Party goes into orgies of ecstasy over his presence. At last, his Tory fans are saying, here is a Conservative who is so popular he can ‘get away with it’. Berlusconi was also a beneficiary of this process.

The scandal that is exposing the criminal egregious cruelty of Savile and his collaborators is welcome and may bring some relief to their victims. But the kind of racy, ‘reality’ he personified was an early product of a twisted version of male celebrity culture whose misogyny continues to be celebrated and is seeping into politics.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this isn’t Italy. There is also growing resistance to such behaviour in large parts of the public perhaps even more than within the elite. We are spitting out the presumptions and arrogance behind Savile and company. I think this is in considerable part thanks to the growth of a culture of human rights that is providing a public ethical framework for people when they say, “Hold on, this is wrong”, and helping them refuse to be patronised or dismissed.

* * * *

Which brings me to the BBC. A compelling case is being made that the way Savile’s behaviour was tolerated and covered up before and after he died last year demonstrates a structural problem with the Corporation. Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph, David Elstein more surgically in OurBeeb, Claire Enders on Sky News, Peter Oborne taking the argument to Chris Patten and demanding he resign.

On Sunday Patten replied in the Mail on Sunday: It was a “tide of filth” and he is going to “sort it out”. Who is he? It’s a technical but telling point that it is not his job to do this. Patten chairs the BBC’s Trust, not the BBC. The Trust is not a trust, but nor is it a board, and the BBC no longer has governors. How can it be accountable?

As for the immediate scandal of Savile, Patten regards it as a very damaging but external storm. In a revealing passage he writes, “In recent years, some of our greatest institutions have been discredited one after another: Parliament; the police; the press. Now the BBC risks squandering public trust”. The assumption here is that the crash of these once great institutions, and one wonders why he did not include the Banks, are not related; least of all to the BBC. A moment’s thought shows this to be absurd. Not only are these great institutions connected, they are especially connected to and by the BBC, which is the foremost source of information about them. To believe that the British Broadcasting Corporation can be fully trusted while all around it Britain’s other governing bodies sink into the mire is, well, asking for it.

If the Chairman of the Trust that oversees our most important news and cultural institution feels that it was untouched by the other profound scandals that he lists, then he can’t see the wood for the trees. It was blindingly obvious that with the collapse of the traditional establishment, the crash of market fundamentalism, and the explosive rise of digital communication, the BBC had to establish a new relationship to the public.

To use shorthand, it has to learn to trust the public rather than demand to be deferred to as of old. This is what Dan Hancox and his team are attempting to establish with the OurBeeb project at openDemocracy.

Patten’s claim, however, is that on becoming Chairman he wanted to “raise programme standards”. When the distinguished theatre and film director Richard Eyre spoke to OurBeeb he emphasised that what matters is outstanding, creative programme making, especially on present day themes. Jean Seaton, the official historian of the BBC, has also argued that the BBC should be accountable through it programmes. But Patten’s examples of these are historic dramas (including ones made by Eyre). Where are the popular dramas the BBC is commissioning on the corruption of parliament, the scandal of the Lords or the suborning of the police and the financial crash?

In May this year, after the Corporation announced there would be a new Director General, openDemocracy launched OurBeeb to try and engage with the process in a positive spirit, as a website committed to public service values. There was not the slightest iota of a welcome from the BBC. Now, our claim that it needs saving from itself as well as the tabloids and that the best way of doing this is by it becoming ‘our Beeb’, an institution that belongs and is accountable to the public who trust, admire and pay for it, has been vindicated, if in a way no one would have wished.

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy