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
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
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.