Jimmy Savile’s “innocence”, Rio and racism and next-day deliveries

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

During the hacking scandal, it emerged that James Murdoch failed to ask why the News of the World was paying £720,000 to Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association. Now we learn that George Entwistle, now the BBC director general, was told last year in a previous role about a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile but considered it below his pay grade to ask what it was about or how it might affect a planned Christmas tribute to the late presenter. The former director general Mark Thompson reveals that he, too, was informed that he should be “worried” about an investigation but sought no further details.

It seems also that most bank bosses failed to ask any questions about what their traders were up to in the run-up to the financial crisis. Is incuriosity a qualification for high office? Or is there some management course that teaches bosses not to enquire what their subordinates are doing? Perhaps history misjudged the emperor Nero. During the Great Fire of Rome, he didn’t ask why he could smell burning because, following recommendations from management consultants, he was scrupulously observing what Entwistle calls “chains of command”.

Hero to zero

In a study of celebrity, Savile would be a telling case : a man of zero talent who, through careful image manipulation, made himself a radio and TV personality. People “knew” a bighearted, if eccentric, man who loved children (in the innocent sense) and worked tirelessly for charity. Now they “know” he was a ruthless, serial child abuser. Yet the second image, created in recent days by an overexcited media, may prove as false as the first. No evidence has been tested in a court of law. Once, children were almost universally treated, not exactly as liars, but as fantasists whose word was not to be trusted. Now, not only are children deemed incapable of untruths, so are adults when they claim childhood memories.

Savile is not the first to be catapulted posthumously from adored celebrity to despised anticelebrity. The alleged treatment of children often prompts the transformation: think of Bing Crosby or Enid Blyton, though they at least had tangible talents that survive them. The truth is that we never “know” celebrities we have not met and it is very silly of us to think we do.

Stand and deliver

Ofcom, which is supposed to regulate in the interests of consumers, has aired the idea that the Royal Mail should drop next-day deliveries. Yet first-class mail currently accounts for well over half the total. Why should the Royal Mail drop the service for which customers pay a substantial premium?

Answer: an end to next-day deliveries would leave a lucrative market open for the private sector. Even Margaret Thatcher dared not nationalise a public service that will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2016, and this government is in no position to take such a step. But it can whittle down the Royal Mail until it becomes hopelessly uneconomic, with only the old, the sentimental and the geographically isolated using it. Why is Ofcom helping? Colette Bowe, its chairman, is also chair of Electra Private Equity. No conflict of interest, but such people have instinctive sympathy for ideas that create new opportunities for private capital.

Fergie’s wrong

In football, as in other sports, managers and coaches tell players not only what to do on the field, but also what to eat, wear, say and think. In a way, that’s right, because professional sportsmen are so focused from an early age on the skills needed to succeed in their chosen game that they miss the normal stages of adolescent social development. The trouble is that their bosses are nearly always ex-players and therefore equally underdeveloped.

Alex Ferguson, once a shipyard shop steward, didn’t become a full-time professional footballer until he was 22, which partly explains his managerial success. Yet even he fails to understand how preposterous it is for a white boss to tell Rio Ferdinand, a mixed-race player, that he had best fight racism by wearing a T-shirt. It requires a mighty leap of the imagination for any white person to grasp what racism means to a non-white. Racism is the product of historically rooted relationships of economic and social dominance, which is why there can be no such thing as a white victim of racism and certainly no analogy with people who suffer “banter” for being too fat or too ginger. Ferdinand may not put it like that but he understands it in his bones. His opinion, and those of other non-white players, are therefore the only ones worth considering. Until football acknowledges that, it will fail to stamp out racism, T-shirts or no T-shirts.

When Saturday comes

The weirdness of sporting authorities brings us naturally to the England and Wales Cricket Board, which has announced that, from 2014, no (or hardly any) first-class county matches will be played on Saturdays.

Perhaps the board has been studying the game’s history. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Saturday was the least common day for playing any sport. Before the standard working week, employees received wages and businesses settled their accounts on a Saturday. Even Saturday marriages were rare; most cricket matches started on Mondays.

Evelyn Waugh complained the Conservatives never turned the clock back a single second. The cricket board, by contrast, cheerfully reverses the clock by two centuries.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten