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Dark decade of criminal exploitation

12 February 2016

QUESTIONS remain over whether there are BBC managers from the 1970s who should be held culpable for the sins of Jimmy Savile. The hunt for scapegoats assumes that we will all feel better about child sexual abuse if we can nail the guilty, and move on. And yet we forget the very strange culture of the time.

As a new television producer at the BBC, I remember filming in a girls’ school. An all-male crew openly ogled as they filmed girls in their knickers in a gym class; the staff looked on unconcerned. Did I stop the filming, or complain at their attitude? It never occurred to me.

It is difficult for anyone to imagine now how, in those heady days, everything to do with sex was acceptable; only prudishness was condemned. I once received a letter at the BBC on headed paper, which purported to come from the Albany Trust, a reputable homosexual counselling service.

Overtures had been made to the Trust by the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), and this letter was written, I presume, by someone in sympathy with the latter, pleading the case for the media to support a campaign “to alleviate the suffering of many adults and children” by abolishing the age of consent, and thus legalising sex with children.

For a time, the PIE managed to attach itself to the National Council for Civil Liberties, and a motion in favour of its agenda was carried at a gay-rights conference in 1975. Mary Whitehouse campaigned against it, not least because it appeared to be in receipt of government funding through its connection with the Albany Trust.

I found the letter that I received disquieting, but it seemed at the time part of a wider agenda for sexual liberation. The veteran left-wing journalist Polly Toynbee was one of many who abhorred the PIE’s campaign, and she feared that, in the climate of the day, paedophilia could become accepted as part of what she called “the general liberal credo”. Astonishing as it now seems, the PIE survived for ten years before it was closed down. Prosecutions of some members followed, on charges involving child pornography and assault against minors.

If the PIE served one useful purpose, it was to help society eventually to draw a line between sexual freedom between consenting adults and the criminal exploitation of children. The fact that it took ten years to do so should make us hesitant to judge those who were caught up in the sexual mayhem of the 1970s. It might relieve our anxiety to find a few scapegoats, but many did see things differently then, and it took a dark decade before we really understood what we were dealing with.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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