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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How the mantra of centrism gave populism its big break

A Labour insider reflects on the forces behind the march of populism. 

For just under a quarter of a century, British politics has been dominated by what might be called, paradoxically, a “theology of centrism” - the belief that most people were more concerned with what works than ideology, and that politics should principally be the art of improving the delivery of public goods. It was a theology that, for all their policy differences, united Tony Blair and David Cameron. Anyone who thought electoral success could be won anywhere but from the centre was either naïve or fanatical, or both... but definitely wrong.

Now, populism is on the march across the West. In Britain, as elsewhere, the political class is unnerved and baffled.

So what happened? Partly, as with all revolutions in politics, the answer is: “events”. Unsuccessful wars, economic crashes and political scandals all played their part. But that isn’t enough of an explanation. In fact, the rise of populist politics has also been a direct result of the era of centrism. Here is what has taken place:

1. A hollow left and right

First, the theology of centrism was the culmination of a decades-long hollowing out of mainstream politics on the left and right.

In the mid-20th century, Conservatism was a rich tapestry of values – tradition, localism, social conservatism, paternalism and fiscal modesty, to name but a few. By 1979, this tapestry had been replaced by a single overriding principle - faith in free-market liberalism. One of Margaret Thatcher's great achievements was to turn a fundamentalist faith in free markets into the hallmark of moderate centrism for the next generation of leaders.

It is a similar story on the left. In the mid-20th century, the left was committed to the transformation of workplace relations, the collectivisation of economic power, strong civic life in communities, internationalism, and protection of family life. By the turn of the 21st century, the left’s offer had narrowed significantly – accepting economic liberalism and using the proceeds of growth to support public investment and redistribution. It was an approach committed to managing the existing economy, not transforming the structure of it or of society.

And it was an approach that relied on good economic times to work. So when those good times disappeared after the financial crash, the centrism of both parties was left high and dry. The political economic model of New Labour disappeared in the first days of October 2008. And when a return to Tory austerity merely compounded the problem of stagnant living standards, public faith in the economic liberalism of the centre-ground was mortally wounded.

2. Fatalism about globalisation

Second, Labour and Tory politics-as-usual contained a fatalism about globalisation. The right, obsessed with economic liberalism, welcomed globalisation readily. The left under Bill Clinton in the US and Blair in the UK made their parties’ peace with it. But globalisation was not a force to be managed or mitigated. It was to be accepted wholesale. In fact, in his 2005 Conference speech, PM Tony Blair chastised those who even wanted to discuss it. “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation," he said. “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer. They're not debating it in China and India.” (I bet they were, and still are.) The signal to voters was that it was not legitimate to fret about the pace and consequences of change. No wonder, when the fretting began, people turned away from these same politicians.

3. A narrowing policy gap

Third, the modernising projects of Blair and Cameron ended up producing a politics that was, to use Peter Mair’s term, “cartelised”. The backgrounds, worldviews and character of party elites began to converge significantly. Both parties’ leaderships accepted the same external conditions under which British politics operated – globalisation, economic liberalism, sceptical acceptance of the EU, enthusiasm for closeness to the US on security issues. The policy space between both main parties narrowed like never before. As a result, economic and class divisions in the country were less and less reflected in political divisions in Westminster.

The impression arose, with good reason, of an intellectual, cultural and financial affinity between politicians across the main divide, and between the political class and big business. This affinity in turn gave rise to a perception of “groupthink” across the elite, on issues from expenses to Europe, and one that came with a tin ear to the concerns of struggling families. It may be misleading it is to depict all politicians as snug and smug members of a remote Establishment. Nevertheless, social and economic convergence inside Westminster party politics gave populists an opportunity to present themselves as the antidote not just to Labour or the Tories, but to conventional politics as a whole.

4. New political divides

Lastly, the populist moment was created by the way in which new electoral cleavages opened up, but were ignored by the main political parties. The last decade has seen a global financial crash that has restored economic insecurity to frontline politics. But at the same time, we are witnessing a terminal decline of normal party politics based fundamentally on the division between a centre-left and centre-right offering competing economic policies. 

Of course economics and class still matter to voting. But a new cleavage has emerged that rivals and threatens to eclipse it - globalism vs nationalism. Globalists are economically liberal, positive about trade, culturally cosmopolitan, socially progressive, with a benign view of globalisation and faith in international law and cooperation. Nationalists are hostile to both social and economic liberalism, want more regulation and protection, are sceptical of trade, see immigration as an economic and cultural threat, and have little time for the liberal international order.

The factors that drive this new electoral divide are not just about voters’ economic situation. Age, geography and education levels matter – a lot. Initially both main parties were tectonically slow to respond to this new world. But populism – whether Ukip, the SNP or Theresa May's Tories – has thrived on the erosion of the traditional class divide, and sown seeds of panic into the Labour party as it faces the prospect of sections of its traditional core vote peeling away.

Centrists thought their politics was moderate, pragmatic, not ideological. But signing up to free market liberalism, globalisation and an economistic view of politics turned out to be seen as a curious kind of fundamentalism, one which was derailed by the 2008 crisis. The exhaustion of the theology of centrism did not create populism – but it did allow it a chance to appeal and succeed.

Those on the left and right watching the march of populism with trepidation need to understand this if they are to respond to it successfully. The answer to the rise of populist politics is not to mimic it, but to challenge it with a politics that wears its values proudly, and develops a vision of Britain’s future (not just its economy) on the foundation of those values. Populists need to be challenged for having the wrong values, as well as for having anger instead of solutions.

But calling for a return to centrism simply won’t work. It plays precisely to what has become an unfair but embedded caricature of New Labour and Notting Hill conservatism – power-hungry, valueless, a professional political class. It suggests a faith in moderate managerialism at a time when that has been rejected by events and the public. And it tells voters to reconcile themselves to globalisation, when they want politicians to wrestle a better deal out of it.

Stewart Wood, Lord Wood of Anfield, was a special adviser to No. 10 Downing Street from 2007 to 2010 and an adviser to former Labour leader Ed Miliband.