Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Throwing Stones at Glass Houses? Musings on Jimmy Savile

The scandal surrounding the alleged pedophilia of TV and radio celebrity Jimmy Savile, OBE, KCSG, in the UK is clearly broader than just the BBC. Up to now the Corporation has born the brunt of most of the often self righteous criticism of those who seem to blame the BBC, many for political reasons--they want to cut the supposedly liberal Beeb down to size--exclusively for turning every cheek from the scandal and covering it up. As this article and others indicate, however, the apparently intentional amnesia about Savile's behaviour and its cover up was not only something that apparently happened at the Beeb, it also happened in broader British society and culture as well. It was thus not only the hierarchy at the Beeb who were turning the other way way while Savile engaged in his alleged behaviour, it was much of British society and culture including much British society and culture on high.

What this seeming "royal" treatment of Savile by so many institutions and individuals in British society and culture really tells us about is the role celebrity culture and people's perceptions of celebrities in the UK and beyond play in the modern world today. The cult of celebrity personality appears to have affected how people perceived Savile's behaviour and it appears to have limited the actions institutions and people, including Scotland Yard, could and did take against Saville. And this little fact should give us all pause. It should make us reflect upon the cult of celebrity personality and its role in creating secular saints, secular whitewashed saints, to be "worshiped" as symbols for what we believe our society and our culture should be (thank you Durkheim). It should make all of us reflect on the roles almost all of us play in creating and maintaining these cults of personality. It should make us reflect on the role institutions like Hollywood and the British media play in manufacturing cults of celebrity personality and the reasons why they manufacture these cults of personality. It should make us all look in the mirror. I hope you will forgive me for my cynicism if I say, however, that I doubt such reflexivity will last longer than a few weeks after the scandal ends. After all, no one seems to be paying much attention to one of the great scandals of the millennium, Rupert Murdoch's buying of British politicians and the British police and breaking into private messages of celebrities of all flavours.

One other interesting issue--there are many--raised by scandale Savile, as this article seems to indicate, is the issue of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll groupie culture. Apparently, if Rick Parfitt of the long lived rock and roll group Status Quo is to be believed, this groupie culture was apparently quite common at Top of the Pops at the time of Savile's reign and Savile was deeply a part of it. One has to wonder whether what happened in this groupie culture is now being re-read or re-interpreted from the vantage point of the more sensitive to child abuse era of the post 1990s. And one has to reflect on the patriarchal nature of this groupie culture of an earlier era, a patriarchal culture that gave impetus, in part, to the second wave feminist movement of the 1970s and beyond.

Nothing that I write here is meant to excuse Savile for his behaviour. If reports that he forced himself on a brain dead patient at a hospital in Leeds, to take just one instance, are accurate than his behaviour was truly disgusting and very disturbing. The point that I want to make here is that there is a lot of people and institutions one can point ones fingers at, people and institutions at the BBC and beyond who and which allowed Savile to get away with his disgusting and disturbing behaviour. Using this scandal, a scandal that says volumes about celebrity, to go after and punish the BBC alone would be as disgusting and disturbing as the behaviour of Sir Jimmy Savile himself, at least in my book. Look in the mirror Great Britain.

Addendum, 12 November
So it is not enough for Rupert Murdoch and his heirs apparent and their fellow travelers to try to kill the BBC. The BBC, it appears, wants to help Murdoch and others who want to eliminate the world's great public broadcasting competition from the television and online scene. In 2008 Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand--both of whom I find enormously unfunny--made telephone calls to actor Andrew Sachs crudely discussing Brand's relationship with Sach's granddaughter. In 2010 after it was revealed how much the Beeb paid celebrities like Ross and Brand questions were raised about whether a public broadcaster should be shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries for individuals, like Ross and Brand, in the name of competitiveness. In October of 2012 the Savile scandal discussed above broke and it became clear that Newsnight, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, had backed off airing a report on the scandal last year. Critics pointed out that the Beeb ran a celebratory show on the deceased Savile around the same time and suggested we connect the dots. In November Newsnight aired an investigative report in which Steven Messham, a former care-home resident, claimed he was sexually abused by Tory politician Lord Alistair McAlpine. The tale, as it turned out, was false--as the Guardian discovered--and the BBC has had to issue an apology for the inaccurate report. Was Newsnight and the BBC trying to redeem itself for not airing the report on the Savile scandal and as a result aired the investigative report too hastily or was it, as recent reports seem to indicate, a result of the depletion of the Newsnight editorial board and the confusion that brought?

Amidst all of this the enemies of the BBC, including Rupert Murdoch--he who throws stones at glass houses except when it is his own--are playing the role of King Herod calling for the head of the BBC. What political, economic, and cultural--the issue of trustworthiness, for example--impacts these latest controversies surrounding the BBC will have on one of the great public institutions in the world only time will tell. Only time will tell how long it will take the Beeb to stop aiming loaded pistols at its own feet as well. I for one cannot help but wonder whether the Beeb is turning tragedy into farce whenever it can. And this saddens me.

For an interesting essay on the Savile scandal see Kim Akass and Janet McCabe, "The Dark Side of a British TV Icon" TV Worth Watching, 27 October 2012

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