Following my last blog Trauma – Psychotherapy and a ‘Healing Canopy’ I had some afterthoughts triggered by the rapidly unfolding, or exploding, Jimmy Savile scandal. Like many of my colleagues I struggle to comprehend how, considering the several hundred individuals that have come forward with allegations, this could have been kept quiet for so many decades. This whole unfolding of events does indeed feel like one huge collective afterthought.
Many are quick to react with cynicism that everyone is complaining now that the man is dead and can’t defend himself anymore, ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Whilst I think that it is important to hold on to ‘innocent until proven guilty’, especially considering how the British media are already doing ‘their thing’, I think it is just as important to not become part of the dynamics of abuse. As mentioned in my previous blog – siding with the perpetrator is easy, since they only ask us one thing: to do nothing. The recent BBC Panorama programme gives reason to think that this is what happened when rumours and suspicions had started circulating around the third and fourth floor of BBC. Allegations were laughed off, by Savile, those around him, and BBC senior staff. Or they were simply not believed or generally ignored. In fact, Liz Dux, solicitor of the victims, states that many coming forward recently say that they did report incidents and that no action was taken.
Siding with the victims, on the other hand, poses many very difficult challenges, and what abused individuals frequently face after a traumatic experience is a response of disbelief, ridicule and even blame by others. Savile’s alleged abusive behaviour during BBC employment would have started in the mid1960s, which means one has to take into consideration that the victims, children or teenagers at the time, were living in a society that had radically different attitudes towards rape and sexual abuse compared those tentatively developing in Western society today. Not only would they not have had a ‘healing canopy’ which would have provided support and a shared reality, it increasingly appears as if they were also dealing with a societal and institutional ‘silencing blanket’. The Panorama programme starts by stating that ‘The NHS, the Home Office, and local authorities may all face legal actions for failing to protect Savile’s many young victims.’ And the BBC specifically is being accused of having turned a blind eye for decades, and especially in recent months, with the controversy surrounding the shelving of the Newsnight programme exposing Savile’s behaviour and the BBC’s conduct. Renowned BBC journalist John Simpson calls it ‘the worst crisis that I can remember in my nearly 50 years at the BBC.’
In a Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee hearing, BBC Director-General George Enthwistle, admitted that ‘There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved in the years that the culture and practice of the BBC seems to allow Jimy Savile to do what he did, will raise questions of trust and reputation for us, and one can only look back with horror that his activities went on as long as they did undetected. This is a gravely serious matter. […] I am determined to get to the bottom of this and to put it right.’ There will be two separate reviews, one conducted by Dame Janet Smith looking at BBC culture, and Entwistle states that ‘there are great many people we need to talk to to find out whether anybody did know what was going on.’ The second investigation is led by Nick Pollard and will focus on the Newsnight controversy.
Karen Ward, interviewed in said Newsnight programme and the first to speak on camera about being abused by Savile, explains that when she heard that the programme was shelved she felt very hurt. Her statement exemplifies the fear and risk of humiliation an abuse victim might experience when considering speaking out about such a crime: ‘To me it just meant that yet again I hadn’t been believed. But I’ve spent my whole life not being believed. It was hurtful and it was difficult because I had been pushed so hard to do it when I didn’t want to. […] In the end I said ok. That’s what made me angry, the fact that I had gone through all that stress when I really had to concentrate on getting well and then they never used it, because someone higher up didn’t believe me.’
Some of the responses shown in BBC’s Panorama programme exemplify typical responses to abuse. Martin Young, reporter of BBC Nationwide, worked with Savile and says ‘I thought he was a pervert.’ When asked if he ever thought of reporting anything he replies ‘No, never even crossed my mind. And I take my share of the blame for that.’ Bob Langley, also of BBC Nationwide, remembers seeing some girls coming out of Savile's motor home: ‘They would have been 12 or 13, maybe 14, but certainly not 15. When they had left he indicated to me in a nudge nudge wink wink sort of way that he had just had sex with them. I didn’t believe him! Supposing I had gone to the police or the BBC what would have happened? The answer is nothing would have happened - he would have said it was a joke.’
BBC Radio DJ Paul Gambaccini states: ‘This horror was going on while the whole of society was watching. But because it was off the scale of everybody’s belief system, they didn’t really come to terms with it.’ When he was asked why he didn’t report his suspicions he replied: 'So what, I, a junior DJ am supposed to get up there and say my senior is a perve? They're going to laugh at me.’
Later in the Panorama programme it is reported that in 1973 BBC Radio controller Douglas Muggeridge ordered his press officer Rodney Collins to investigate if any of the rumours about Savile having sex with minors were true. Derek Chinnery was asked to confront Savile about the rumours, which he did, and Savile denied everything. Chinnery states ‘if the man’s denied it you don’t then go and hound him. There was no reason to do so at the time.’ This is another example of it being easier to side with the abuser rather than with the victim. It also shows how frequently, in sexual abuse cases, there seems to be more pressure on the victim to prove the abuse rather than on the perpetrator to prove his innocence.
There are also accusations that Savile chose especially vulnerable victims, and this again would tap into the dynamics that frequently occur after abuse – reportedly he ‘targeted’ girls from Home Office approved Duncroft School. It is stated that ‘all the girls at Duncroft were deemed emotionally disturbed’. The former Duncroft pupils who were interviewed for Panorama state that they knew very well at the time that even if they had had the courage to speak out about what they had to go through, because of their history and the stigma already attached to girls at that institution, they would not have been believed or even properly listened to.
Yesterday Savile’s family made a statement of how shocked they are by recent events, and that they are struggling with imagining that the Jimmy Savile they knew could ever have done such terrible things. This reminded me of another difficulty the BBC and people involved or in the know might have been faced with – Jimmy Savile represented something to the British people to the extreme: goodness. As Jim in Jim’ll Fix It he was the one who would make children’s dreams come true; as a Radio 1 DJ and as Top of the Pops presenter he enjoyed almost rock star celebrity status; and his charity work itself seems to have almost catapulted him to sainthood. If that hasn’t then the Catholic Church made sure he was catapulted close to it, when, in 1990, the same year as having been knighted by the Queen, Pope John Paul II honoured him with a papal knighthood, making him a Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Gregory the Great (KCSG). Which, given the Roman Catholic Church’s own troubled history with its dealings with sexual abuse by their own clergy is highly controversial in itself.
What seems to have occurred hand in hand is that the media and Savile co-created his image and persona, whilst the British public increasingly projected their hopes and fantasies of goodness on to his persona too. Both processes were probably increasing and enabling each other. This was something that quite possibly, consciously or unconsciously, played into the considerations of anyone who was thinking of reporting any of Savile’s questionable behaviour they might have seen or suspected. It wasn’t just one person’s life they were confronting, it would be a whole nation’s hopes, and people’s sense of their own goodness in a way too. This, of course, is by no means an excuse, but an attempt at understanding and explaining the situation.
The other issue that hasn’t really been addressed is that there seems to be an inherent conflict of interest in the BBC running a programme that essentially is a damning report of BBC procedure and conduct. It kind of makes sense that it was ITV who eventually ran the story.
When emotions run high things tend to get seen in extreme, quite split ways. The British media and the British public’s idealisation of Savile left little room for criticism. A figure of such perfection has to be kept perfect at all times, at all costs. Doubts were brushed off very quickly. This might explain why, as allegations finally started being publically voiced after the ITV programme, the situation switched rapidly into the other extreme – completely demonising him and judging him without waiting for the outcome of official enquiries and reports. All of a sudden people make statements such as ‘It’s obvious’, ‘I’ve known it all along’, and ‘He looks like a pervert anyway’. On one hand it seems implausible that this story has not exploded into the public sphere much earlier; on the other hand there are many possible explanations why, for so many decades this hasn’t surfaced. A tragic large-scale example of the dynamics of abuse? Let’s wait for the evidence.
Silke Steidinger - Psychotherapist writing about developments in psychotherapy