Were Jimmy Savile's alleged abuses a reflection of his era?
Forty years ago people looked the other way at rumours of sex with underage children
HOW DID Jimmy Savile escape investigation for his alleged abuse of underage girls in his lifetime? And why was it ‘OK’ in the 1970s for older men to sing about being attracted to children? Commentators have been debating the social mores of decades past following the broadcast of ITV documentary Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, which has brought to light sexual abuse accusations against the TV presenter, who died last year aged 84.
Writing in The Guardian, Mark Lawson says the documentary made "sharp use of archive footage [including] a clip from a BBC show called Clunk-Click, in which Savile and guest star Gary Glitter snuggle up to teenage female studio guests... with Savile leering: 'He's got two. I shouldn't be giving girls away!'"
If the show had a weakness, Lawson writes, it was that the ability to judge the witnesses’ testimony through their tone of voice and body language “had to be surrendered because of the reticence of the alleged victims: some were given disguised voices and false names on screen, another was played by an actor".
The documentary pointed out that two BBC programmes, featuring Louis Theroux and Coleen Nolan, raised the allegations during Savile's lifetime, says Lawson, begging the question once more: why was the presenter allowed to get away with his alleged activities for so long?
The Daily Mirror's Brian Reade thinks that it was because "many journalists like myself suspected and did nothing. Back in the 1990s Savile used to answer the phone to us reporters with the words: 'She told me she was over 16.' And we laughed it off. Where were our exposes?
"Instead of arguing with our editors that this warped man should be hung out to dry," Reade admits, "we preferred to crack jokes about it. The truth is that we allowed ourselves to believe that Savile could never be nailed."
In The Guardian, Suzanne Moore argues that the culture of Savile's era, which saw "Jimmy Page teaching a 14-year-old the tricks of the trade... the late, great John Peel getting married for the first time to 'an underage girl' he claimed had lied about her age" in no way excuses the broadcaster's crimes.
"Liking 'young girls', never 'children', was just a preference in a 'gentlemen prefer blondes' way. I say no: this is not a preference, it is a perversion. It was in the 70s, and it is now, and I don't know what men my age are playing at defending this behaviour. Would they want their daughters marrying a Bill Wyman?" Moore asks.
Things were indeed different then, agrees David Aaronovitch in The Times. "Today, rumours of sex with under-age girls bring instant investigation. Forty years ago people looked the other way," and bands such as the Union Gap went on Top of the Pops and sang Young Girl - a song about the sexual attraction an older man feels for an underage girl.
"Perhaps it was partly that ambivalence that stopped the BBC - and indeed, any of his other regular contacts in schools and charities - from thoroughly investigating the rumours about Jimmy Savile that it is now clear were circulating for decades," Aaronovitch suggests.
"Back then our parents’ generation was either much more relaxed or more-or-less in denial about child sexual abuse: 'wonderful' priests abused altar boys and nothing was said or believed; 'inspiring' boarding-school teachers... groomed and assaulted their charges and not until years later was the truth known."
Since then the veil of silence has been lifted, thanks in part to people like Rantzen and her Childline charity, and venerable institutions have been disgraced because of their long association with child abuse. “We have made moral progress," Aaronovitch concludes.