Jimmy Savile as ‘agitprop for believing all abuse allegations’
Allegations of sexual abuse by the former BBC entertainer, Jimmy Savile emerged in a television documentary shown a year after his death in 2011, and provided a massive impetus for a sea change in policing and prosecution policies in response to allegations of historical abuse (now called non-recent abuse) – write Dr Ros Burnett and Mark Smith.
Most visibly, this was evident in the prosecution, and in some cases conviction, of a number of aged entertainers (Operation Yewtree) and investigation of allegations against former MPs, some dead (e.g. Operation Midland), categories that might formerly have been seen as untouchable, because of their popularity or status. But the Savile scandal and the regrets expressed by authorities who might have intervened earlier served as an open invitation for allegations of historical abuse to be made no matter how long ago, with the promise that they would be acted upon and of anonymity for complainants. Operation Pallial, the Macur Review and other policing operations ensued, and the Savile case was implicated in calls for an independent inquiry into institutional responses to child sexual abuse.
You can read Ros and Mark’s article Victim or Complainant? Researching historic abuse allegations here.
It featured in Proof issue 1 Justice in a time of Moral Panic – order HERE.
The ‘Jimmy Savile Scandal’ has acted as a major ‘signal crime’, a concept introduced by Innes and Fielding to denote crimes that catch a lot of public attention and have an impact on the way the public and institutions think about safety and security. The exposure of Savile in autumn 2012 occurred in the same year as the conviction of 12 men in the Rochdale child sexual abuse ring.
For years such cases of sexual exploitation (CSE) of care-leavers in several cities across England had been couched in sensitivities about the racial and religious backgrounds of the culprits. Collective guilt about having dismissed the complainants as complicit or lacking credibility, meant that claims as abundantly corroborated as those against Savile could justify a move to inverting the presumption of innocence to a presumption that complainants are victims of those they accuse. Unsavoury photos of Savile therefore quickly became agitprop in demanding more victim-centred institutional responses to reports of sexual abuse.
The huge increase in the reporting of sexual offences that followed the October 2012 exposures of Savile has been described by the Office of National Statistics as the ‘Savile effect’. The NSPCC reported an 81% increase in calls to its helpline in the year after Operation Yewtree. An analysis by the House of Commons library with returns from 33 of the 41 police forces in England and Wales, showed many forces struggling to cope with more than double the number of child sexual abuse cases over the four years since 2011.
Earlier this year, the head of Operation Hydrant, which is co-ordinating police investigations of historical child sexual abuse, said forces were operating beyond capacity because of the sheer volume of reports. In Scotland, 80 per cent of High Court cases now involve sexual or domestic crimes, while in some police forces as much as 40% of detectives’ time is spent investigating historic cases.
Another impact has been on the prison population. A recent report by the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman (PPO) for England and Wales attributes a demographic shift in the prison population towards older inmates, being largely due to more late-in-life prosecutions for historic sex offences and increased sentence length. Among a sample of 314 naturally-caused deaths of prisoners aged 50 or older that occurred between 2013 and 2015, 60% had been convicted of sexual offences. It is not unrealistic therefore to acknowledge that a custodial sentence imposed on an older defendant could well be the equivalent of sending an older defendant to die in prison (a greater punishment than the judge ordered). According to information from FACT (Falsely Accused Carers and Teachers) a significant number of these prisoners will have maintained that they are innocent, and for those who are indeed innocent it will have been nigh on impossible for them to find exculpatory evidence from perhaps several decades ago.
One legacy of these inquiries is that residential schools are being recorded in history as uniformly places of harm to children where abuse was systemic or was enabled – if not dens of iniquity, the playground of paedophiles. This disregards the good rehabilitative and educational work that was achieved in many residential schools. Not only has this investigative turn served to defile the careers of such staff, it has been very hurtful to former members of staff whose vocation was to help disadvantaged children, and it has led to the persecution of innocent people and some miscarriages of justice.1 It should not be forgotten that many of these establishments were Approved Schools, later renamed Community Homes with Education (CHEs), to which children and adolescents were sent after they had committed criminal offences or developed serious behavioural problems and difficulties that, for some, have continued in their adult lives.
What links the Savile debacle to widening condemnation of past residential schools for child care is that the original allegations of his sexual offending were made by former residents of just such a school, Duncroft, a Home Office Approved School for girls aged 15-17. Moreover, Operation Outreach, which subsequently investigated these claims, referred two former members of staff to the Crown Prosecution Service for possible prosecution. One of them was in her nineties by then. It is not clear what any charges might have been but paragraph 1.6 in the report states that: ‘It became apparent that there was the potential for staff to have known abuse was occurring but either deliberately ignored what was happening or were aware and actively aided the abuse by continuing to allow Savile to visit and have access to the girls.’ While the CPS decided that there was not enough evidence to gain a conviction, it did so while making personal visits to the complainants to reassure them that they had been believed. No such courtesy was extended to the elderly staff after their ordeal of several years.
Duncroft featured heavily in the television programme that exposed Savile as a prolific offender, and also in the BBC Panorama programme later that month, that discussed the dropped Newsnight programme a year earlier that had been pitched and then produced by Meirion Jones, nephew of the headmistress of Duncroft that he had visited sometimes as a child. He described Duncroft as ‘a very strange place’. This retrospective depiction of Duncroft as ‘odd’ and ‘weird’ has become the standard story of the school. It is portrayed in subsequent reporting as a lax establishment where Savile was given free rein to abuse girls with no questions asked. One of the early allegations suggested that Savile treated Duncroft ‘like a paedophile sweet shop’. Miss Jones is cast as a callous figure who ignored or dismissed the complaints former residents claim to have made to her. All in all, the picture of Duncroft fits with the wider history of shame that has come to define residential child care.
In fact, Duncroft does not fit this mould at all.2 It was, in reality, a progressive and pioneering institution, which reflected a post Second World War optimism regarding how better to address what was known at the time as juvenile delinquency. It sought to treat rather than merely to control girls’ behavior and to this end it drew upon the services of psychiatrists from the Maudsley, the famous mental health training hospital.
In 1966, a new wing at the School was opened by Lord Rab Butler, who had overseen the passage of the 1944 Education Act and had gone on to serve as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary, Depute Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary. Butler expressed the view that ‘it was wonderful that the girls were indeed being helped and not punished’. He congratulated Miss Jones and her staff on the remarkable work they were doing, which he described as ‘pioneer work for the whole country’. The school attracted national and international attention. A particular feature was that it admitted only those girls with a high IQ who, for whatever reason, had failed to achieve educationally in previous settings.
Staff members and many former residents spoke highly of the school. They describe a strict regime in which Savile’s movements (and indeed those of any visitor) were tightly monitored. They refute that he would ever have had access to dormitories or that he would have been given the kind of unsupervised access to girls that is claimed. Trips to television studios, where Savile is also accused of abusing girls, were organized events involving staff members.
Specific claims of abuse reported in newspaper articles are clearly not borne out by the available evidence. A former resident, Bebe Roberts claimed in an interview with the Daily Mail that Savile had assaulted her at Duncroft in 1965 when she was 15. Yet Bebe Roberts’ roommate in the mid-1960s had never seen Savile there. In fact, the former resident who introduced Savile to Duncroft indicates that Savile first visited the school in 1974, a date subsequently confirmed by Surrey Police’s Operation Outreach. One is left to wonder why such major and verifiable discrepancies in foundational accounts of the Savile story have not been picked up by the mainstream media.
Operation Outreach concluded that 22 pupils and one visitor were victims of sexual abuse by Jimmy Savile at Duncroft, ranging from being touched on the breast over clothing to oral sex and rape – some of these alleged offences were in vehicles in the grounds or off-site. While individual discrepancies obviously do not discount the possibility that Savile sexually abused girls at Duncroft, they do, however, set an alternative context, casting a different light on the school culture, which it is claimed, allowed such abuse to happen unchecked. In the regime described in contemporary reports and by former staff members and residents, Savile may have been able to take his chance to exploit girls opportunistically but it seems unlikely that he was able to behave in the uncontained manner that press and official reports claim and upon which the wider narrative depends.3
Victim or complainant?
The implications of questioning the Savile narrative on the basis of going back to Duncroft, where it all began, are profound – they unsettle the direction of recent criminal justice policy in respect of its privileging of victim accounts (a practice already subject to severe criticism in the 2016 Henriques Review. In this respect, it is troubling that inquiries into the matter of Jimmy Savile began with a principled assumption that complainants were victims. Indeed, the report for Operation Outreach notes the investigation ‘does not regard accounts provided by Duncroft victims as unproven allegations, and as such they are referred to throughout this report as “victims” rather than “complainants”.’ (para 8.7).
But even if Savile was found to be less prolific than concluded, some of his complainants having jumped on a bandwagon, would it matter? Even without the test of a fair trial following due process and even without the numerous inquiries conducted, there is enough visual and documentary evidence together and are enough third party witnesses to persuade the jury of public opinion of his sexual exploitation of underage girls. Yet, the most profound implication of the Savile scandal, and one rarely commented on, is that it has been used as an agitprop for shifting policy to belief in all allegations of abuse and turning a blind eye to false allegations.
- See: Home Affairs Select Committee (2002), The Conduct of Investigations into Past Cases of Abuse in Children’s Homes andWebster, R. (2005), The Secret of Bryn Estyn: The Making of a Modern Witch Hunt. Oxford: The Orwell Press.
- It was Susan Cameron-Blackie, a former Duncroft girl herself and a percipient investigative writer (via her blog AnnaRaccoon.com), who led us to alternative narratives about what befell at Duncroft.
- Our research on Duncroft is discussed further in Smith, M. and Burnett, R. ‘The origins of the Jimmy Savile scandal‘, International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy, in press.
This article was first published on September 12, 2017
Author: Ros Burnett and Mark Smith
Dr Ros Burnett is Research Associate, formerly Reader in Criminology, at the University of Oxford Centre for Criminology. She is editor of Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse, Oxford University Press, 2016 and co-author with David Faulkner of Where Next for Criminal Justice?, The Policy Press, 2011.
Mark Smith is Professor of Social Work at the University of Dundee. He is a former residential child care worker and has written extensively in this area, including on allegations made against care staff.