In her opening statement in her report (http://www.damejanetsmithreview.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Opening-Statement-of-Dame-Janet-Smith-25.02.16.pdf) on Jimmy Savile’s years abusing girls, boys, women and men at the BBC, Dame Janet Smith refers to a “macho culture” as an important element that enabled Savile to get away with decades of criminal, abusive behaviour.
Whilst Smith’s report absolves the BBC of institutional responsibility, Director General Tony Hall’s statement accepted that the question of whether BBC bosses knew of Savile’s abusive behaviour does nothing to address the legitimate question: “How could you not have known?”
In this sense, the “macho culture” Smith identifies takes on an institutional character – institutional sexism – which can and should be tackled within that institution. The BBC has work to do, for sure, but it is not the only institution where macho culture, where sexism, prevents us from seeing the reality of men’s abusive behaviours.
Savile’s abuse of women and girls at least was an open secret, existing, as the title of Dan Davies’ biography of Savile suggests, In Plain Sight (http://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/13/jimmy-savile-man-who-knew-him-best-dan-davies-in-plain-sight), The problem wasn’t that people didn’t know. It was that – among other factors – the macho culture prevented them, prevented us, from recognising it as abuse. Too many of us were simply implicated in his world view.
Davies’ biography demonstrates how Savile was adept at implicating others. He notes, for instance, that Savile used to answer the phone to journalists with the line “I thought she was 16”, that he explicitly referred to sexual contact with teenage girls in his 1970s autobiography, and that he’d openly “joke” that his motto was “don’t get caught”.
But these weren’t just in jokes with journalists.
In the now infamous Clunk Click programme where Savile hosted Gary Glitter, he jokes about “giving” Glitter two girls and both men drape themselves over the young women on set (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j6Hx7Q2oC5U). On Top of the Pops some years later, Savile groped singer Coleen Nolan on camera (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnidfKRUXD8) and non-celebrity audience members were also groped in plain sight (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=puyKtlPcmzU).
The TV audience at home saw this too. But most of us didn’t see it as abuse either. Celebrity men helped themselves to women, and too many of us went along with it. To greater and lesser extents, many of us were complicit in creating what Liz Kelly https://metranet.londonmet.ac.uk/research-units/hrsj/staff-and-associates/liz-kelly.cfm) calls a “conducive context” for violence against women and girls.
But this is a relic of a bygone age, right?
It would be nice to think so. However, my ongoing work on press reporting of Savile since his 2011 death suggests no room for complacency.
In the first stage of this research, I’ve been examining in the UK press from Savile’s death until 3 days after the ITV broadcast of Exposure which named him as a serial abuser of girls. (The evidence of his abuse of boys came later.) Existing research on this same material (http://cmc.sagepub.com/content/9/3/243.abstract) has explored how the scandal around Savile was finally activated, having been an open secret for so long. But my concern has been with the nature of the “open secret” itself and I’ve found that the kind of sexist complicity we see in his address to journalists and his on-screen behaviour can be found in more recent reports too.
So, at the time of his death, newspapers frequently referred to Savile as a “ladies man” or “womaniser” also noting rumours of “underage sex”. The extent to which his every interaction with women and girls was sexualised through his behaviour – from incessant flirting to groping, demands for kisses, and comments on their attractiveness – was seen as part of what make him a lovable eccentric. A national treasure.
Even when the stories of abuse first emerged in the press, this perception of Savile persisted. These stories of abuse were labelled as “sex claims”, allegations of “child sex” and “underage sex”. This was at a time when other stories relating to consensual sex (the emergence of a long-time hidden lover, and a potential love child) dominated coverage of Savile. The abuse stories fit this broader narrative about sex and the abuse was invisible as such.
The persistence of the label “underage” even when the story became one of abuse is also disturbing. Think about the phrase “abuse of underage girls”. Isn’t there an implication here that there is an age at which one can consent to the kind of abuse Savile was accused of: groping, attempted rape, rape? That’s also why the persistent labelling of Savile as a paedophile is unhelpful. Yes, he abused children. He also abused adults. Smith’s report isn’t a report exclusively about child sexual abuse: indeed, a majority of Savile’s BBC victims were legally adults. However, that they were over the age of consent is immaterial: they did not consent.
Fast forward four years to the day Dame Janet Smith’s report was released. The Mail Online, anticipating the report, ran with a headline: “Damning Jimmy Savile BBC Sex Report to be Released Today.” Jimmy Savile wasn’t damned for having sex at the BBC. He – and Stuart Hall – were damned for sexually abusing women, girls (& in Savile’s case, also men and boys) at the BBC.
Surely one of the most potent legacies of the Savile case has to be that this conflation of sex and abuse in the media’s treatment of allegations against powerful men has no place in a civilised society.