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

Will Self's "Madness of Crowds" column.

Jimmy Savile after receiving his OBE in 1972
Jimmy Savile after receiving his OBE in 1972. Photograph: Getty Images

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.