Public image no longer hides private actions

Sat, Oct 6, 2012, 01:00

Cynicism about priests, politicians, pop stars and the rest of the establishment has set us free from destructive obsequiousness

IT TAKES some work to derive any good news from the grim allegations levelled at the late Jimmy Savile. But we’ll give it a go.

If you’ve brushed up against any media over the last few days, you will be aware that the former DJ and marathon runner – a pioneer in hip-hop fashion before the musical genre was invented – has been accused of sexually abusing a number of underage girls.

The most depressing of the stories related in this week’s ITV documentary suggested that Savile groped one fan while another pop star – still alive, so we’ll tread carefully – raped a 13-year-old in a nearby alcove. The incident is alleged to have occurred in a BBC dressing room.

Not much can be done about Savile himself. The dead can neither sue nor spend time in prison. But the controversy bubbling about the BBC will hang around for a spell. Paul Gambaccini, veteran DJ and pop boffin, suggests that Savile felt untouchable. Rumours had been simmering for decades. Yet no one felt able to blow the whistle.

“I’ve been waiting for this to come out for 30 years, but then he did raise millions for charity,” Gambaccini said. “This comes out when he’s dead because he had an imperial personality in showbiz, and I’m not talking about personal life.”

Commentators have argued that, whether the accusations are true or false, Savile would have been able to hide behind his popularity and fame. It has been suggested that a recent report on BBC Newsnight dealing with the accusations was shelved because the station was planning programmes celebrating Sir Jimmy’s colourful life. (Peter Rippon, editor of the programme, vigorously rebuts the accusations in a comprehensive blog post.)

“You just didn’t mess with Jim,” Gambaccini said. “He was the governor.”

It all sounds depressingly familiar. The language is very similar to that used when discussing the abuse of young people by officials of the Catholic Church. He was a respectable figure. Who would believe a child over a pillar of the community?

We are often told that the 1960s ushered in the “end of deference”. If popular histories are to be believed, citizens stopped tugging their forelocks at bishops and peers and looked for guidance from more egalitarian, less stuffy graduates of the rock’n’roll years.

There is some truth in this. But the old deities retained much power and the new gods often abused their positions in terrifying fashion. Some years back, I interviewed a director who had once worked with a hugely popular group from the glam-rock era. He remembered drunken girls being dumped outside the doors of hotel rooms like so much dirty laundry. Once the stars had satisfied themselves, the fans were of no further use.

One of the oddest scenes in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous – an absurdly detoxified study of 1970s rock – finds the jolly band “selling” a groupie to a rival act. Having travelled with the Allman Brothers Band as a teenage journalist, Crowe knew whereof he wrote. The new establishment was quite as willing to abuse power as was the fusty old guard.

Here’s the good news. It does look as if much of that dangerous deference – to both bishops and popular entertainers – has belatedly slipped away. Gary Glitter received no quarter when child pornography was discovered on his computer. Jonathan King, impresario and sometime pop star, was sent to jail for sex offences. We hardly need to detail the scandals that have spread through the Catholic Church over the past decade or so.

The advent of social media has made life that bit more difficult for celebrities intent on abusing vulnerable young people. Within seconds, an accusation can be disseminated to a million hand-held devices throughout the globe. Everybody is his or her own newspaper publisher.

Maybe the downsides to that development outweigh the advantages. For every valid accusation, there are a hundred snippets of misleading gossip. One slightly disturbing aspect of the Savile affair has been the number of people who, noting Jimmy’s odd dress sense and peculiar manner, professed they “knew all along” he was a deviant. (In a spirit of full disclosure, I should own up to thinking something similar myself.)

In the current era, just being an eccentric can inspire a million Twitter users to form themselves into a digital lynch mob.

For all that, we should rejoice that it is now, maybe, just a little bit easier for genuine victims of abuse to level accusations against the powerful. Cynicism about politicians, pop stars, priests, journalists, actors and the rest of the establishment has set us free from destructive obsequiousness.

The incidents alleged in that Jimmy Savile documentary could still take place today. But they would be harder to cover up.

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