America has Jerry Sandusky. Britain has Jimmy Savile.
Sandusky you know; the predatory Penn State football coach was sentenced last week to spend his remaining years in prison for raping boys who looked up to him. Savile you may have missed; a venerable British TV personality who died last year, he is now at the center of a posthumous scandal unspooling in London. His appetites ran mostly to adolescent girls, but otherwise the parallels are striking. In both cases, the story is not just one of individual villainy but of the failure of a trusted institution, if not a flaw in the wider culture.
Perhaps you’ve had your fill of these sordid accounts — the celebrity gropers, the pedophile priests, the fondling in the locker room shower, the witnesses who look the other way. But Savile’s case is worth mulling, if only because the institution in which his serial child abuse took place is one of the most respected media organizations in the world, a putative shrine to truth and accountability: the BBC. And in the early days of the scandal the revered broadcaster has faced the same questions of dereliction or outright cover-up that dogged Penn State and the Catholic Church when they experienced their respective outbreaks of infamy.
To appreciate Jimmy Savile’s place in English culture, imagine a combination of Dick Clark of “American Bandstand” and Jerry Lewis, maestro of the muscular dystrophy telethon. Savile was the longest-serving host of the immensely popular BBC music show “Top of the Pops,” and the star of another long-running show called “Jim’ll Fix It,” in which he pulled strings to grant the wishes of supplicants, mostly children. Like Sandusky, he buffed his reputation by throwing himself into charity work. Like Sandusky he seems to have used his philanthropy both to identify vulnerable children for his personal sport and to inoculate himself against suspicion. The good deeds helped earn Savile two knighthoods, one bestowed by the queen, the other by the pope. He was Sir Jimmy, confidant — or at least photo-op accessory — of royals, prime ministers, even Beatles.
Like Sandusky, he cultivated an aura of flamboyant eccentricity. The Penn State coach was a prankster and a knucklehead, a perpetual adolescent, which served as a plausibly benign explanation for all his prodding and grabbing. It was just Jerry being Jerry. Savile was a gregarious goofball who lived with his mother, and who sported a blond pageboy haircut, pink-tinted glasses, garish track suits and fat cigars. Being the man-child Pied Piper of the pubescent was his shtick, his job, and cover for a brutal cunning.
The testimony of his accusers describes what Malcolm Gladwell calls, in a shuddersome study of Sandusky’s ilk published in The New Yorker last month, “child-molester tradecraft.” You have “the subtle early maneuvers of victim selection,” the screening out of children who object or who are supervised closely by parents, the testing, ingratiating, “grooming” and “desensitizing the target with an ever-expanding touch,” the escalation of abuse.
Gossip about Savile’s fondling of young teenagers was rife, but never rose to a level deemed newsworthy during his life. But on Oct. 3 the investigative program “Exposure,” on the rival ITV network, aired a damning documentary. It included interviews with five women who described being sexually abused as teenagers and with colleagues who witnessed compromising behavior. After that, the deluge. London police now say they are pursuing more than 300 leads, and that they believe Savile abused girls as young as 13 over the course of four decades — in his BBC dressing room, in hospitals where he was a benefactor, in the back of his white Rolls-Royce.
It turns out that the BBC’s own investigative show, “Newsnight,” had also delved into Savile’s history, but ended up killing the program last December. It would have run a few weeks before a BBC holiday tribute to the memory of Jimmy Savile.
The BBC rides on the taxpayers’ subsidy — and at times rides a high horse — so the story has inspired some gloating. Media mogul and BBC-hater Rupert Murdoch, no doubt happy to have a distraction from the grubby behavior of his phone-hacking tabloids, found in the Savile uproar a chance to tweak two of his fiercest rival news organizations at once. He reminded his Twitter followers that the recent head of British Broadcasting, Mark Thompson, will soon take over as chief executive of The New York Times Company. “Look to new CEO to shake up NYT,” Murdoch tweeted, “unless recalled to BBC to explain latest scandal.”
So far no evidence has surfaced that Thompson, his successor or anyone else up top had anything to do with dropping the Savile documentary. (The BBC says it is investigating.) The editor of “Newsnight,” Peter Rippon, says he decided to shelve the program after prosecutors told “Newsnight” they had declined to bring a sexual abuse case against Savile “due to lack of evidence.” Whether the BBC fell short in its reporting and missed the story or had the story and lacked the nerve, it is a significant embarrassment, compounded by the hard question of why the widespread rumors of Savile’s behavior were ignored for so long.
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