Show Hide image

After the Savile scandal, it’s time for the BBC to remove its red nose

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

The mot juste is oophagy, meaning that strange form of in utero nourishment whereby embryos feed on eggs produced by the ovary while still in the mother’s uterus. There is speculation among ichthyologists – and sociologists – that oophagy may be preparatory for a predatory lifestyle, but in organisations such as the BBC it seems to serve no useful or adaptive function at all.

Ever since the Jimmy Savile paedophile story broke we’ve witnessed one act of oophagy after another, as, within the capacious womb of New Broadcasting House, director general eats director of news, and director of news eats Newsnight editor. The only developed embryos to get out of there alive have been the original reporter on the Newsnight story, Liz MacKean, and her equally upstanding producer, Meirion Jones. For the BBC listeners and viewers the oophagy has been more or less 24/7, as each bulletin begins: “This is the BBC news at X, the director general of the BBC, George Entwistle has said . . .” I only hope that by the time you read this it will have all died down a bit.

Chaos not conspiracy

But what all that threshing about at the BBC has been obscuring from view is the more disturbing gyre of the societal whirlpool surrounding Savile’s abuse. Possibly there was conspiracy at the BBC to cover up Savile’s activities; it is not inconceivable that other media organisations passively or actively colluded with this, although, as regular readers will know – and please forgive the grotesque punning – I always favour cock-up as a heuristic over conspiracy. It seems to me that the question of how it is that the serial abuser Savile was able to hide in the over-lit view of the television studio for over four decades cannot be answered within any such binary formulations. As a species we’re addicted to the facile discrimination involved in saying that something or phenomenon is either “this” or “that” – how much more uncomfortable that it may well be “the other”.

Savile was such a phenomenon: the seventh child of a Leeds bookmaker’s clerk, he was conscripted into the mines during the Second World War as a Bevin Boy. Making his career in entertainment, as a dance hall manager and wrestler, then as a disc jockey and television presenter, Savile occupied a pivotal position within the British class dynamic: as a deracinated petitbourgeois, his obvious affinities were with Tory leaders such as Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher (seemingly a friend) and John Major. Like these politicians, Savile’s shtick was to personify a transitional state: between poverty and wealth, between stasis and change, between tradition and innovation. As such, his existence typified a socio-economic order – and related culture – that tends towards punctuated equilibrium. In his cut-out-and-keep Jackie magazine togs, he had the air of having been designed by committee, which in a way he was: a mass committee, the members of which numbered in the millions, and included both complacent leaders and the complaisantly led.

Key to Savile’s role was charity. “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (1 Corinthians 13:13) I don’t know if Savile was much of a Biblereader, but he had Paul’s first epistle down pat and was able to violate the faith and hope of scores of young people through his philanthropic endeavours. Now, you may say that simply because a psychopath (and clearly, Savile was one) cynically deploys charitable activity to cover up his crimes, it doesn’t invalidate the principle of charity itself – but I say: it does.

Red face day

Savile’s cynicism differed in degree from most people’s charitable motivation, but not in kind. Charity has come to play the same role at the mass level that Savile did at an individual one: it acts as a safety valve to shame the less well-off and otherwise deprived into muting protest. Violated by the social order, the poor cannot rise up and revolt, because having allowed Jim – or Oxfam/Shelter/the NSPCC – to fix it for them, their distress no longer has credibility.

The rich, as we know, love charity. They’re always having a ball – most often a charitable one. By institutionalising charity, state-funded bodies such as the BBC collude in socio-economic inequality – and by hearkening to their fundraising calls, we, the crowd, are equally collusive. Will anything change as a result of Savile’s unmasking? I doubt it – after all, the thousands of newly self-identifying victims of abuse that are now coming forward are having to be counselled and supported by . . . charities. But the BBC, once it’s dealt with the red face accompanying that oophagy, should seriously think about removing its red nose as well.

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 05 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, What if Romney wins?

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.