Savile: Denialism and the "grooming the nation" delusion

The myth that Savile "groomed the nation" is pure denialism - pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group.

There’s a horrible myth about Savile, and though it changes depending on the person you speak to, the damaging substance of it remains the same. It is the myth that some clearly delineated group bears responsibility for Jimmy Savile, perhaps the BBC if you lean right, or some vague "establishment" if you’re on the left. It is the myth that the public were helpless bystanders in the relentless fifty-year tragedy of Savile’s celebrity life. It is the myth of our victimhood, and it is the warm blanket we curl under for comfort because we don’t want to see the cold, dark reality that surrounds us.

One of the most unsettling things about the whole affair is that we can watch so much of it on Youtube. Savile’s behaviour toward young women wasn’t just confined to sleazy bedrooms. It happened in studios, in front of audiences and directors. It was recorded by cameramen and beamed into millions of homes across Britain, where people watched it, saw nothing untoward, and got up to make a cup of tea. On the evidence of his TV appearances alone, Savile should have been about as welcome in a children’s ward as an IUD in a penis. And yet there he was.

On page six of the Yewtree Report (pdf), the authors remark that, “It is now clear that Savile was hiding in plain sight.” An alternative phrasing might be that everybody was watching, and nobody did anything. “For a variety of reasons the vast majority of his victims did not feel they could speak out, and it’s apparent that some of the small number who did had their accounts dismissed by those in authority including parents and carers.” That’s okay though, because this all happened back in the Seventies, and things were different then. The police weren’t as capable, and attitudes have moved on. Times have changed, and Savile was a product of his era: he couldn’t do what he did today.  

Except that he did. Reports of offences at Leeds General Infirmary continue to 1995. At the BBC, they stretch to as recently as 2006, and the most recent allegation dates to 2009. Age and diminishing opportunities may have reduced the rate of his offending, but he was still apparently able to get away with it. That shouldn’t surprise us at all, because so do tens of thousands of others, every single year. The sum of Savile’s crimes is barely even significant against the number of similar cases that will have occurred in 2013 so far. Why? Because we continue to allow a rape culture to exist, a culture that enables – and at times encourages - sexual violence against women and children.

In the last year alone I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of female friends and acquaintances who were sexually harassed or assaulted. Few speak out publicly; fearing that doing so will cause trouble and make their lives worse. In virtually every case their experiences remain private, and the perpetrators remain at large. I’m utterly sick of it, of seeing it happen and being unable to do a thing to protect people I care about. And it’s relentless, as shown by an utterly heart-wrenching blog post by Louise Jones last week, in which the young writer describes in brutal detail no less than four sexual assaults she had experienced.

What happened to Louise, and to so many of my friends, happens to 400,000 women in Britain each year. I can’t even imagine that many people. If you typed all those names out, one every two seconds, it would take five-and-a-half working weeks of eight hour days to get through them all, and by the time you finished there would be another forty-odd thousand names to add to your Sisyphean list.

The reality is that sexual violence, in its broadest sense, is so blatant and widespread in Britain that mainstream media can openly take part in it without anyone raising an eyelid. In 2012, Prince Harry, the Duchess of Cambridge and the actress Anne Hathaway were all victims of deeply grim acts, in which sexually explicit photographs were leaked without their consent, and sold to editors who gleefully paid for them and published them, taunting their victims in the process. There was no possible public interest at work – there are very few reasons we need to see Prince Harry’s cock short of the presence of a swastika tattoo.  

The Sunday Sport were forced to print a grovelling apology last year after publishing an "upskirt" photograph wrongly identified as Holly Willoughby, but to my knowledge nobody asked who the women pictured was, or asked to see signed consent forms. If I took upskirt photographs of women without their consent I would expect to be arrested; yet grimy little perverts with telephoto lenses are free to do this, newspapers are apparently free to publish the results, and the public buy copies by the 100,000.

Few would call these episodes rape, but it was something uncomfortably similar, with the same dynamic at work – the wanton use of power over women and men for no reason other than to force them to reveal their bodies to leering gangs of men and women.

And our reaction to all this? We tell women to cover up, to stop drinking, to stay indoors at night, to withdraw from the world, to “stay home, keep their legs closed and their eyes lowered”. We continue to say this even though the evidence we have tells us that this advice is complete and utter horseshit. Most victims of sexual assault aren’t attacked by horny strangers in alleyways while wearing skimpy clothing: the crime takes place whatever they wear, it is premeditated, it is perpetrated by somebody they know, it is an act of physical violence and domination rather than lust, often in a "safe" place, often in their own home.

That is why the myth that Jimmy Savile “groomed the nation” is so wrong, and so damaging. It is pure denialism, pretending that the problem isn’t about us but some other group – the BBC, the establishment, whoever. Just like the misguided cartoon in Private Eye’s latest edition which describes "gang-rape style" as the product of "medieval misogyny and third-world lawlessness". Just as rape myths try to put at least some of the blame for rape on victims, pretending that "improving" the behaviour of women would make a blind bit of difference to the 400,000.

But this isn’t about people from "third-world" cultures or medieval times, it isn’t about the BBC or celebrity culture, and it isn’t about women needing to change their behaviour. It’s about men, in twenty-first century Britain, who keep assaulting and raping women on an industrial scale, and it’s about the society that raises those men to do it, but still won't take responsibility for the consequences.

Day after day, night after night, on trains and in buses, our colleagues, mothers, sisters, daughters, friends, and lovers, half of the people we care about in the world, are under attack. And we the public sit, and we stare, and we do nothing but tell ourselves over and over again that it isn’t really about us.

To blame the BBC is to pretend this is a problem for "some other group", not us. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser