As stories continue to emerge about the abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile and media reports suggest that other ‘household name’ celebrities are about to be arrested there have been a spate of commentary articles that look back at the 1960s and 70s. In most of these it is suggested that we live in a different society and that we have moved on significantly. As Joan Bakewell told Andrew O Hagen “What we now find unacceptable was just accepted back then by many people”. But it is important that we don’t assume abuse in welfare settings is either something restricted to predators like Jimmy Savile, or that it couldn’t happen again today – Jimmy Savile knew that associating with charities would lead him to meet vulnerable people.
If there’s anything the Jimmy Savile scandal has shown us, it is that we have not come far enough in challenging deference and disempowerment. The only difference is that now issues of inequality and vulnerability can clearly be seen as having as much importance as class.
Some sections of the media have used the scandal as a stick with which to beat the BBC as part of much bigger battles they are waging. But the truth is almost nobody did the right thing and those that did were ignored or told off. Most importantly, while alerted on several occasions and driven to carry out at least five enquiries, the police did nothing. This is the critical omission.
Also let’s not pretend that this is a statement about the supposedly sexually liberated 60s and 70s. It isn’t just about the past. Paedophilia continues to be a crime of violence that people can and do routinely get away with, like rape and domestic violence. These are issues that still don’t command interest.
Ask any child protection social worker – who can still expect to be vilified for telling the world things it would rather not hear and who will still struggle to get convictions against offenders. We have to look at societal values and the leaders who shape them much more closely for explanation.
The key issue in the Savile case is the powerlessness and lack of credibility granted to the people he victimised. He clearly understood that proximity to charity meant proximity to vulnerable people.
As more and more evidence emerges, we hear of more and more people who knew what was going on but felt powerless to do anything, and underpinning everything the naïve and appalling argument that charity is necessarily a good thing. It must be supported and those who support it are necessarily “good”. There is a continuing much broader problem of big charities preoccupied with fundraising, with celebrity departments and public profile, whose driving purpose seems to be their own organisational existence and expansion, rather than the rights and needs of their supposed beneficiaries.
Let’s not pretend that abuse, sexual, physical or emotional, in welfare settings, is either something restricted to predators like Savile, or a blast from the past. Service users and their supporters still regularly whistleblow on such serious problems in psychiatric hospitals, residential services for disabled people and children’s homes – wherever there are groups who are devalued in our society.
Not surprisingly, we are being reminded that Savile entrenched himself in all of these. He seems intuitively to have understood what they would offer him and no one apparently commented on the pattern.
As a young student researching homelessness, I slept unannounced in hostels, night-shelters and government institutions for homeless people, with never a problem. Everywhere I was treated with friendliness and kindness by service users, usually depicted as “low life” and “inadequates”. One night after a party at a homelessness charity I slept over and was woken in the middle of the night to find a worker’s hand on my crotch.
There are big issues here about respecting the rights of devalued and stigmatised groups and safeguarding the whistle-blowers who support them. There are also big issues to be worked through about the inappropriate power of celebrity and the freedom it is granted.
Sadly, what is actually happening is that the government is raising the ante against just the kind of vulnerable groups that were once Savile’s hunting ground. It is doing this through its cruel, stigmatising and demonising welfare reform policies. Not only will these leave many more people vulnerable, not least the very young, but also make it even less likely that they or anyone else will be listened to, if they dare to raise their head above the parapet on their behalf.
About the Author: Peter Beresford is professor of social policy at Brunel University and chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national disabled people’s and service users’ organisation and network.
An earlier version of this article appeared in The Guardian