The culture that permitted Savile's abuses goes far beyond the BBC

Look at the crimes that were committed by one man under cover of a dangerously misogynistic permissiveness, and wake up to the fact that this is exactly what all those tedious feminists mean when they talk of “rape culture”, says Deborah Orr.

Jimmy Savile. Photograph: Getty Images

In the absence of Jimmy Savile himself, the British Broadcasting Corporation is being made chief culprit for his alleged abuses. It is bearing the brunt of widespread dismay that a predatory paedophile could have claimed so many vulnerable victims over such a long period, and without being held to account. Fair enough. The BBC afforded Savile the fame and status that gave him such power over, and access to, his victims. The staff of the BBC were best placed to put together a coordinated narrative that produced a pattern of evidence against this creature. But they never did. Even a Newsnight investigation conducted after his death by reporter Liz Mackean was canned. Instead, ITV broke the story, in a documentary made by former police detective Mark Williams-Thomas, which culminated in the presentation of harrowing testimony from Savile’s victims being presented to BBC star, friend of Savile, and founder of Childline, Esther Rantzen.

Now, as it turns out, Rantzen, the BBC’s world and the BBC’s wife, had all “heard the rumours”, although the BBC says it has no record of any complaint about Savile’s sexual behaviour, from employees or from members of the public. What’s interesting is that there’s something of a gender divide when men and women who worked at the corporation explain why the rumours were never acted upon. Michael Grade appeared on Channel 4 News to place Savile’s abuse in the context of “groupie culture”. Janet Street Porter, Sandy Toksvig and others prefer to cite “gropie culture”. 

Women at the BBC, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s were used to being left to fend off their predatory bosses themselves -- bosses who apparently believed that “groupie culture” excused taking advantage of minors. It’s as obvious now as it was obvious then, that their complaints would have fallen upon unreceptive ears. A former BBC producer, Wilfred De’Ath, spoke of meeting Savile at a restaurant as he “entertained” a 12-year-old, who he’d “picked up” at Top of the Tops. Savile had made it obvious, when De’Ath called him the next morning, that he was in bed with the child. De’Ath says that he felt “demeaned” by this, but was too young and powerless to “speak out”. It’s wrong to be too hard on the man. He was young, and Savile must have been deliberately taunting him and rubbing his nose in the situation. Hitler’s maxim was that if you wanted to get away with a lie, then a big lie would work best. Savile’s evil genius was in understanding that the same could be applied to a “big truth”. De’Ath felt intimidated by Savile – he says he was afraid of him. It rather looks as if sexual intimidation of younger, less powerful people – not only women – was endemic – pandemic - at the BBC.

I’ve never worked there, but I’ve experienced the culture. At 18 I briefly worked in a pub frequented by technicians working at Thames Television's Teddington Lock Studios. One evening a cameraman offered to “get me on TV” as one of Benny Hill’s “Hill’s Angels”. I told him it wasn’t my kind of thing. During the course of the evening, half a dozen of his middle-aged friends asked one by one if they could “see me home safely”. At the end of the evening, they came to the bar and asked me who the hell I thought I was, to turn all of them down. In Edinburgh, in the 1980s, a former Mirror journalist who was my first boss turned up at my home insisting on giving my driving lessons, then booked a holiday to Spain – I’d never been abroad – and demanded that I accompany him. When I worked at the Guardian in the early 1990s, a colleague in his sixties put a hand on each of my breasts in the pub after work, and asked if I fancied coming back to his place. When I declined, he offered that it was “only round the corner”. I laughed at him. But complaining to anyone in authority about him didn’t occur to me. You just had to learn to deal with it.

So, it’s important to remember that this wasn’t a culture confined to the BBC. Savile’s victims, after all, approached other adults in authority – people who had a duty of care over them at school, for example, and police officers from three forces, to have their complaints dismissed. Naughty nurses, secretaries being chased round desks, “jailbait” girls of St Trinian’s torturing their hapless teachers with their sexual power, Young Mr Grace on Are You Being Served, with his “appreciation” of Miss Brahms among a bevy of other young females  – all these were accepted portrayals of the assumption of young female availability. Page 3, of course, still is.

But there is a respect in which liberal cultures were most susceptible to such sexual incontinence. They were most keen to shrug off the repressive orthodoxies which decreed that nice girls didn’t have sex before marriage, and embrace the win-win bargain of free love, and in this liberal men saw themselves as kindly assisting females in their much-needed sexual liberation. When feminism started telling them that this could not be on their terms alone, they were indignant and contemptuous. Thus was created a nasty set of attitudes, in which it was reckoned that it was the women who were not leaping at the liberating chance to be constantly sexually available who were the problem. BOOM. If you didn’t want to have sex with a man, then there was something wrong with you. 

That attitude, however, was not confined to liberals. Indeed, it shored up long-protected ideas about droit du seigneur. Sexual harassment in the City of London is reportedly rife, along with visits to lap-dancing clubs for “business”. The sexual revolution provided a shot in the arm to many long-standing expressions of sexual contempt for women. Pointing out the obvious – that this was an abusive and corrupt use of power – well, that just proved that you were a dried out, frigid, man-hating ball-breaker.

To the people who say that understanding why Savile got away with his crimes is useless because he is dead; to the people why say it’s a BBC problem, not a societal problem, I beg this: Look at the crimes that were committed by one man under cover of a dangerously misogynistic permissiveness, and wake up to the fact that this is exactly what all those tedious feminists mean when they talk of “rape culture”. I beg this: wake up and look at the damage these attitudes did, as the whole of a nation watched. Wake up and see that these attitudes are by no means entirely of the past, not yet.

This article was updated at 15.50 on 9 October.