Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.
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Tuesday 16 October 2012

Oh, Auntie.

THE thing about a frenzy is, well, that it's frenzied.

There are no rules, just a frothing free-for-all cartwheeling wildly out of control with all kinds of crazy-bonkers stuff flying off at a tangent.

That's what's happened with the scandal around Jimmy Savile, the DJ and children's TV presenter who one year after his death has been found out as "one of the most serious predatory paedophiles in criminal history".

It's been a fortnight since the first allegations broke, and a handful of victims have turned into at least 60 children abused over 50 years on hospital wards, in children's homes, and at BBC studios.

There are probably hundreds more who haven't come forward, either through shame, a wish not to reopen old wounds, or perhaps the belief that now they don't need to. There will, inevitably, be some adults who as youngsters were dazed by fame and see what happened to them as consensual.

Now the frenzy has turned, in the absence of seeing Savile brought to justice, to pointing the finger at who knew about the abuse earlier and failed to stop it.

And as is the way of these things, the frenzy is being used as a tool to attack people and things which others always like to attack. So there are people who say the tabloids should have exposed it earlier, there are others who say it proves the BBC is a hotbed of the worst kind of liberalism, and still more who cannot agree if the 'victims' are any such thing.

Journalists at the BBC and tabloids are busy blaming each other for not having got the story sooner, without actually getting very far in proving who knew what, when, or what to do about it, which is all that really matters now.

So let's just stop a moment, and think about this calmly. Where should all this whirling public anger be directed?

Well, first and foremost, at Jimmy Savile. He's the person who apparently molested children for decades, who was investigated by five police forces, who was thrown off a cruise ship, banned from a children's home, who bribed police officers and hired lawyers to threaten journalists. He knew what he was doing, he knew it was wrong, and he did it anyway.

He's the only person, so far, who seems to be a child abuser. So let's reserve most of our revulsion for him and what he did, not the hundreds or thousands of other people who have been swept up by his behaviour.

Now he's dead he's beyond our disgust, buried as requested at a 45-degree angle so he can see out to sea at Scarborough. It might be an idea to dig him up and rebury him face-down, but it's as petty and pointless as scowling at a stable door after the horse has been sent to the glue factory and shot.

Let's also bear in mind that the principle reason we've presumed his guilt is sheer weight of numbers, not because a single victim could have convinced us a national figure was a pervert purely on one person's troubling testimony.

Sex abusers prey on vulnerable people purely because they are easy targets who won't be believed, and I've sat through dozens of court cases where I'm sure the victim is exactly that but due to personal problems - often stemming from the abuse they're testifying about - their evidence is embellished, flawed or less than solid.

It doesn't make them liars, but it does make convictions less likely. Individually there will be some of those now complaining of molestation by Savile whose recollections could, by a good lawyer, be torn apart. They may be entirely right but the law does not seek out the truth - it rewards only what can be proven beyond reasonable doubt.

None of those who have spoken out have been cross-examined by anyone except a journalist with little more than 500 words to play with. Their testimony is being accepted as truth largely because we all know with that much smoke, it would be foolish to say there wasn't a hell of a fire somewhere.

That leaves us with the people who, knowingly or otherwise, helped him offend for so long.

Some of the victims who have come forward have pointed the finger at nurses, social workers, BBC staff and prison officers who either must have known, should have known or even warned children against being alone with him.

A man who worked as Savile's driver for a year, now suffering from dementia, apparently told his wife he was told to "take a walk" every time the DJ brought a young girl back to his caravan. Savile wrote about girls below the age of consent in his 1974 autobiography thousands of people read, along with orgies, angry parents, and compliant police officers. Girls and boys who say they were abused say BBC staff walked in on them in dressing rooms and walked right out again.

And of course there were the rumours. The rumours Controller of Radio 1 Douglas Muggeridge heard in 1971, which Louis Theroux asked Savile about in a documentary millions of people watched, and published in The Guardian in 2000, among other papers. There were a few victims - never more than the difficult-to-prove one or two girls - who approached newspapers in 1984 and who, on legal advice, never had their stories published.

It is those rumours now that are making journalists hurl mud at each other. The nasty old tabloids who hacked phones could surely have had the money and inclination to go after Jimmy, and the BBC should not have allowed an employee with his reputation - proven or otherwise - to be such a massive national figure.

This is almost a frenzy all by itself, and is due in part to the fact tabloids have had a year or more of beastings from the BBC in which every one of our thousands of staff have been tarred as phone-hackers, liars, corrupters of public officials and worse, purely on the basis of eight people now facing criminal charges.

There was no insistence the police should be allowed to investigate first; there was no mention that tabloid journalists were as appalled as everyone else; there were plenty who said we could not be trusted to sort the mess out ourselves.

So there are many hacks who are glad it is now the Beeb's turn to see how it feels as they try to bat away a public inquiry by insisting that once the police have finished they can hold an internal investigation of their own, issue an apology and all will be well.

The News of the World tried much the same thing, and we all know how that ended - in a vomit of public disgust. And however much you hate us you cannot say that phone-hacking was, or could ever be, as bad as ignoring, overlooking or covering up child abuse.

Yet the BBC is deserving of praise for the way it has handled things in the past fortnight. Aside from the general headless chicken impression going on behind the scenes, its journalists have carried the story at the top of its main bulletins and news programmes, debated with radio listeners, and painted on a grimace while they report on their own business' alleged failings in a way which tabloids, to our shame, did not do a year or two ago.

The Beeb is also not the only publicly-funded organisation with questions to answer. The police forces Savile claimed were in his pocket, the children's homes who let him in their doors, the hospitals, schools and prisons who gave him hospitality, all stand accused of complicity.

They may not be guilty of it - one male prison warder from Broadmoor has already disputed evidence from one alleged victim that Savile wandered around women's wards on his own, as even male prison officers were escorted at all times.

But the questions are there, and they deserve to be answered. We need to know why the Department of Health signed off Savile's position as head of a Broadmoor fundraising task force, why social workers and nurses didn't report him or were ignored if they did, why the five police forces who investigated him while he was alive did not apparently talk to each other.

Any other business which employed a child molester who operated on such a grand scale could not investigate it themselves. The BBC made Savile someone every child in the country trusted. There are allegations their premises were used for abuse and their staff may even have witnessed it.

Of all the people and organisations who could have stopped Savile, the BBC had the best chance. It missed it.

When the story was finally uncovered the BBC had the scoop, and they decided not to run it.

Its journalists were so appalled news began to leak, reported first by a tabloid in January, and while the BBC did nothing for 10 months a rival TV show found extra material and aired it.

We now have a national scandal, victims who need to be listened to and questioned carefully, and witnesses who must be found. The longer the BBC and government dodge or delay a public inquiry, the worse this is going to get. Avoidance, as phone-hacking proved, just stimulates the appetite for more damaging revelations.

More than anything else, the scandal and the obfuscation which is going on around it have damaged the trust we all have in a national broadcaster which rightly has a reputation for fairness around the world.

The proof, if you need any, lies in the fact that those dozens of victims are coming forward to tell their stories not to the BBC, but to mass-market, tabloid newspapers which they trust more, on this issue at least, to reveal the truth.

Perhaps it is just a case of our making up for lost time in not having reported it sooner; and perhaps this is the first story we could safely report, so out of decades of frustration we are giving it some welly.

But the fact remains that Auntie has a problem with her credibility. Perhaps she did nothing wrong, but she has more questions to answer than anyone else.

She shouldn't be asking them of herself.

Not the best idea.