What We Knew: Jimmy Savile and the Culture of Abuse

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on November 10, 2012.


A former Yorkshire miner, wrestler and disc jockey is posthumously rocking the British establishment with tremors being felt in the BBC, NHS, the press, academia, charities, toffs’ clubs and even the monarchy.

John Banville: “We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today”

Teenagers in Gloucester

I was a teenager in the sixties in the sleepy cathedral city of Gloucester. We had no connections with the world of celebrities. There was no internet. The tabloid press did not gossip so much in those days.
How did we know, as we gathered in the New Inn on Saturday nights looking for parties, that Rock Hudson and Russ Conway were gay (and in a relationship with Billy Cotton, the bandleader whose son went on to be a big cheese at the BBC) ; that Dusty Springfield was a lesbian; that Ruby Murray was an alcoholic; that Kathy Kirby had had at least one abortion as a result of her long-term affair with bandleader Ambrose.

Another thing that we “knew” was that Jimmy Savile was a child molester.


Savile first came to public notice in a small way in 1958 when he joined Radio Luxembourg, the first of the pirate pop stations, founded in 1948. For my generation, 208 on the radio dial was where we kept up with pop music because the BBC did not cater for us. The main format for the pop music shows was a sponsored slot in which the major record companies touted their own product. Jimmy Savile hosted the Teen and Twenty Disc Club, which peddled the pop product of the Warner Brothers label. Savile as a radio presenter was better than Savile as a TV host because one could not see him. I recall however that he had already started developing his irritating verbal tics: “howzabout that then guys and gals?” “Am I right , or am I right”.

National treasure. What was he famous for?

BBC TV producer Colehan had the idea in 1963 of making a TV version of Teen and Twenty Disc Club. He produced the pilot which later became Top of the Pops, which ran until 2006.

Savile was not a pioneer DJ like John Peel or Roger Eagle (See https://pcolman.wordpress.com/2012/09/03/roger-eagle/). It would be difficult to detect any musical enthusiasms in Savile. Even the anodyne Noel Edmonds (who some people said looked like me) had an interest in music and championed some artists such as Harry Chapin. According to CelebrityNetWorth.com Edmonds is worth around $100 million ( £73 million). Will he catch up with me?

Savile became famous for being famous. His eccentric appearance and manner were unattractive. Novelist Howard Jacobson’s father was a Manchester cab driver who knew Savile through charity work with disabled children. The young Jacobson was horrified that father could claim to like Savile.

“’But the man’s a creepy nincompoop’,” I used to say. “’He has the dead face of a thug, makes ridiculous noises, and aspires to the condition of a slow-to-develop infant. You’d have had me adopted had I behaved like that when I was three.’”

One of the reasons that Savile achieved such wealth and prominence and a knighthood was that he was perceived to do great work for charity. The national treasure is now boldly described as a “predatory sex fiend”.

Jacobson asks: “So, is philanthropy the last refuge of the scoundrel?”

The Accusations

On 19 October Scotland Yard launched an investigation into allegations that Savile  has sexually abused children over four decades. Police were pursuing over 400 separate lines of inquiry, based on evidence of 200 witnesses, via 14 police forces. They described the alleged abuse as being “on an unprecedented scale”, and the number of potential victims as “staggering”.

It is alleged that he preyed on young patients at Stoke Mandeville, Leeds and Broadmoor hospitals where he worked as a volunteer. He is alleged to have molested a brain-damaged patient at Leeds. Someone walked into his dressing room at the BBC and saw him engaged in penetrative sex with an under-age girl. Savile was annoyed but not ashamed. He told the intruder to get out. The intruder said he had gone to discuss business and was shocked enough to report the incident. No-one did anything.

In the bosom of the establishment

Savile was for years a regular guest of Margaret Thatcher at Chequers, her official country house when she was Prime Minister. He was frequent visitor to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace and Highgrove (Prince Charles’ estate). Charles sent a Christmas card saying: “Jimmy, with affectionate greetings from Charles. Give my love to your ladies in Scotland”. Princess Diana described Savile as a “sort of mentor to Charles”.

He was elected to membership of the Athenaeum club on Pall Mall (a far cry from the Teen and Twenty Disc Club). The Athenaeum used to represent the peak of London’s clubland for the public intellectual. Savile was put up for membership by Cardinal Hume and was accepted over the protests of many other members. My boss in the early 80s, Sir Arthur Armitage , stayed at the club when he was working in London.

When Savile was made an honorary doctor of arts by the University of Bedfordshire some commentators said he was hardly an example of academic excellence. Savile’s honorary degree has been rescinded

Undermining of institutions

There have been accusations of a cover-up by the BBC. Victims are likely to sue and the BBC might be “vicariously liable” for Savile’s actions on their premises. Liz Dux, who represents some of Savile’s victims, said that Savile had targeted both boys and girls and that when victims came forward no action was taken.”There are some quite serious allegations that a paedophile ring was operating”.

The Independent describes “a recursive nightmare in which the BBC found itself investigating its own failure to investigate”. A Panorama programme broadcast by the BBC itself on October 22 reported allegations that the Top of the Pops programme was a centre of abuse – and that Savile was not the only one involved.

Paul Gambaccini was a BBC DJ. He said that everyone knew what Savile was doing but it never occurred to him to do anything about it. He makes the feeble excuse that he was “junior” to Savile and no-one would have listened to him

Esther Rantzen was a BBC TV presenter who became a virtual saint with her ChildLine charity. It now appears that she knew about the Savile rumours but did nothing. She now has the gall to call for a stronger whistle-blowing “culture” among junior staff.

Continuum of exploitation

A number of individuals have been dragged into the scandal. It seems that Savile once said Gary Glitter had done nothing wrong. Glitter (Paul Gadd) was deported from Cambodia and jailed for four years in Vietnam for having sex with underage girls. Comedian Freddy Starr has strenuously denied any guilt. The BBC has also been embarrassed by revelations that John Peel impregnated a 15-year-old girl.

Some of this guilt by association has somewhat fogged the picture. In an attempt to convey a “culture of sexual abuse” at the BBC, a number of people have come forward with their own experiences. Sandy Toskvig and Liz Kershaw have said they were groped on air. Toyah Wilcox made headlines by saying she had not been groped because she was too tough but knew it was going on. Headlines suggested that David Walliams had been in danger but he was merely saying, to raise a laugh, that he had written to Jim’ll Fix It but had not got a reply.


When I worked in child protection at the Department of Health the government gave large financial grants to enable the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) to continue its work. The NSPCC also felt the need to maintain a public profile by raising funds itself from members of the public as individuals. They did this by attention-grabbing campaigns which indicated that just about everyone in Britain had been abused as a child. When one analysed the raw data one discovered that their definition of sexual abuse ranged from violent and persistent penetrative rape to having seen a flasher out of the corner of an eye, or to two consenting teenagers being caught at it and being labelled sex offenders because they were underage.

The Savile case has brought out statements like one from Sue Berelowitz, Britain’s deputy children’s commissioner, who is quoted as saying: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.”’ I have dealt with sexual abuse hysteria and lynch mob mentality before in this paper.

See: http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=40946

Conflation of different types of behaviour can result in wrongful persecution of innocent people. In this case it trivialises the gravity of Savile’s crimes.

Culture and Power

George Entwistle, BBC Director General told the Commons culture, media and sport select committee: “There is no question that what Jimmy Savile did and the way the BBC behaved in those years – the culture and practices of the BBC seemed to allow Jimmy Savile to do what he did – will raise questions of trust for us and reputation for us,”

Howard Jacobson again: “Power corrupts, in sexual matters as in political, and one of the most important lessons to be learnt from Savile’s progress is that we should check power at every turn.”

Banville on Unknown Knowns

Writing in the New York Times about the child abuse scandal in the Irish Catholic church, novelist John Banville said: “Never tell, never acknowledge, that was the unspoken watchword. Everyone knew, but no one said…Amid all the reaction to these terrible revelations, I have heard no one address the question of what it means, in this context, to know. Human beings — human beings everywhere, not just in Ireland — have a remarkable ability to entertain simultaneously any number of contradictory propositions. Perfectly decent people can know a thing and at the same time not know it.”