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I wish I had been less trusting

09 November 2012

Jimmy Savile exposed the flaws in institutions and colleagues, says David Winter


Honoured: Jimmy Savile in 1996, with his knighthood from the Queen

Honoured: Jimmy Savile in 1996, with his knighthood from the Queen

THE Jimmy Savile story has been a sad and depressing affair. From the start, it had all the ingredients of a media feeding-fest: celebrity, sex, scandal, and blame. In addition, it engulfed a national institution, the BBC - "Auntie", as we used to call her - in a tidal wave of indignation and ridicule.

Why, people asked, did the organisation not listen to rumours, guard more carefully its junior audiences, police its dressing rooms more assiduously, and ensure that its star performers were not using its studios as a cloak for malice?

Well, it is undeniable that the BBC was lax, but if "Auntie" was taken in by Savile, she was in good company: Margaret Thatcher (house-guest at 11 Christmases, no less), Downing Street (a knighthood), and the Vatican (a papal knighthood), for three. Large and honoured institutions, often because of complex command structures, seem to be vulnerable to financial or sexual abuse, as we have seen in the banking sector, the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, and now the BBC.

Savile worked for the religious-broadcasting department of the BBC for a while in the 1970s, presenting a discussion programme, Speakeasy. Its originator and chief producer was a gifted Anglican priest, the Revd Roy Trevivian, who has since died. Speakeasy involved a studio audience of young people, largely drawn from schools and clubs (and often accompanied by teachers and leaders), for an open discussion, with invited guests, on moral and ethical topics of interest to a young audience. I produced it on a number of occasions, when Roy was not available.

Savile was by then a huge celebrity. Top of the Pops, which he presented regularly, was the weekly celebration of pop music, and Jimmy was its high priest. This was the age of hysterical fans who would go to almost any lengths to meet their idols. It was a heady mix, and I suspect that nobody wanted to be the first to throw a bucket of cold water over it.

Young girls would hang around Savile, smiling and laughing, and probably hoping that they might be invited into his dressing room after the show, or, even better, into his caravan. What a story to tell your friends at school!

What we who worked with him now know, but were reluctant to suspect then, was that their very eagerness and gullibility were being exploited. Looking back, we were probably all either dazzled by celebrity, or hoodwinked by cunning. In the absence of specific evidence or personal testimony, we assumed that Savile was exactly what he portrayed himself to be: an honest if eccentric man, doing a great deal of good for charities and hospitals, and a harmless clown.

IN THE BBC canteen once, he waved his cheroot, and offered me his take on divine judgement. St Peter would not dare to exclude him from heaven, he explained, because God would remind him how much money Jimmy had raised for charity, and how many hours of unpaid work he had put in as a hospital porter. "Get them doors open now, and quick" were the words he attributed to God. My comment at the time, I think, was "Jimmy, it's not like that."

It is a view of divine judgement which is popular: a balance of good and bad, with a hope that our account is just about in credit. It is a million miles from the Christian concepts of sin and grace. Savile, a practising Roman Catholic, was in fact echoing a whiff of a medieval idea - supererogation. I do more good than is strictly required, in order to offset faults and sins - mine, or other people's. Presumably he went regularly to confession, and one wonders what his confessor made of it.

THIS whole sordid business raises another more general question - indeed, it probably applies to every one of us. In what sense am I "my brother's keeper"? Over the past few weeks, I have heard BBC executives and Savile's colleagues being accused of "passing by on the other side", like the priest and the Levite in the parable.

But the analogy is flawed. The men in the parable had seen the consequences of a crime, and were faced by its victim lying at the side of the road. They had not simply heard rumours at the inn that something might have happened to a wayfarer on the Jericho road. This is not an excuse for doing nothing, but there is a real difference. Virtually nothing that has been printed or broadcast about Savile over the past weeks could have appeared had he been alive, because no case had been proved against him.

I am my brother's and sister's keeper, and, like many others, I wish that I had been less trusting, more suspicious, more aware of the standard paedophile strategies. But this was more than 40 years ago, and I think we were all inclined to give people - especially ones with a distinguished record of good works - the benefit of the doubt. We were wrong, of course. It is a harsh lesson to learn, and one that is as relevant today for the Church as it is for the BBC.

Canon David Winter is a former Head of Religious Broadcasting at the BBC.

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