I watched Louis Theroux’s new doc ‘Savile’ on Sunday night; when I went to bed later, I had nightmares. I felt haunted by everything I thought I’d ever known about the man; frankly, I wished I hadn’t watched it. It was depressing and voyeuristic. I felt Theroux’s discomfort at having made the original ‘jolly’ doc ‘When Louis met Jimmy’ back in 2000, and his attempt now to acquit himself for not spotting the truth. Hearing the victims’ stories was deeply disturbing, not least the lady abused by Savile as a 10-year-old at church, after also suffering a history of abuse from her grandfather. She said she expected nothing less from men; she also said she had good memories of her granddad which confused her, and very poignantly, she asked Theroux if he thought that was OK. He said yes and I thought – what really qualifies you to say that? Partly that was informed by my on-going training to be a counsellor – and partly I thought that with my journalistic hat on, feeling he’d overstepped boundaries – although I imagine he was only trying to console her, mired in a sense of his own shame.
It’s difficult to watch Savile footage now with our new knowledge without thinking ‘My God, what a freak, how obvious’. The Savile abuse also makes me think of my own TV career. For around sixteen years, I worked on factual programmes for everyone from MTV, to the BBC, C4 and Sky. My path never crossed Savile’s – although Jim’ll Fix It was one of my favourite programmes as a kid. And like so much gossip about famous people those of us working in the media heard, the rumours about Savile felt something like an urban myth. When the gossip turned out to be true, it was extremely chilling and makes me wonder – was I complicit somehow, even though I never even met the man? (Very good review of the doc and the themes, here, by Rachel Cooke)
I also watched the new Netflix Amanda Knox documentary last weekend, with an interest born of having lived in Perugia myself for a few months in 1989, studying at the same University – alongside a load of Seattle students. My parents originally met in Perugia in the ‘60s and I’d visited the city as a child. Perugia is both beautiful and rather medieval – and it strikes me that the latter didn’t help Knox, if she is innocent, as the courts have now found her to be. In the late ‘80s certainly, the Italian boys thought the foreign girls were a good bet: certainly, when I lived in Perugia, it was normal to be verbally harassed in the street; sometimes they’d come up and touch my (blonde) hair though I don’t remember anything more threatening (though we did get waylaid down an alley once late at night and yelled at about Hillsborough). I put up with the touching: I was 18; I didn’t like it, but what could I do? (It also makes me think of being about 12 and a boy coming and touching my budding bosom in the swimming pool, dared by his friends. That was just part of being a girl, we thought, annoying, but – hey).
In both these docs, being female was part of what made life more difficult. The innocent children and teenagers coming into contact with Savile and being abused. Poor Meredith Kercher, murdered by Rudy Guede in some kind of sexual attack – but also, Amanda Knox, very possibly innocent, but then set up to seem promiscuous and therefore apparently dubious by the world’s media and the Italian justice system, after the murder. Whether or not you believe Knox to be guilty, both the media and the Italian police & courts definitely pitted themselves against female sexuality – hence the ‘Foxy Knoxy’ sluttish speculation that didn’t help her case at all.
Also in both docs, British journalists were interviewed; coincidentally, both had worked for the Mail, one of Britain’s richest (and, I would say, most ruthless) newspapers. In the Theroux doc, journalist Angela Levin said she’d been informed by a (doubtless female) nurse that Savile assaulted young disabled patients – but the paper couldn’t print, according to Levin, because of libel laws. But, of course, they could have done some proper journalism – which would have been to research the facts and actually uncover something near the truth.
In the Knox doc, it was journalist Nick Pisa who was happy to print endless salacious stories along with excerpts of her private diary: leaked to the press by prison staff presumably, after she’d been LIED TO BY THE SYSTEM and informed, wrongly, she had HIV, apparently in an act designed to both scare her and get her to admit something. As it turned out, Pisa seemed more interested in his front-page leads than the truth. That was the buzz: seeing his by-line, and ‘If I didn’t print it, someone else would,’ he admitted, somewhat sheepishly perhaps. But isn’t the point, Mr Pisa, that a decent journalist is not only meant to get the scoop – but also to actually present hard facts?
In the end, Savile’s cover came down to money and fame – partly because raising loads for Stoke Mandeville rendered him apparently untouchable – despite him constantly touching young girls and women around him.
Savile’s faithful secretary Janet Cope couldn’t bear the idea he’d been an abuser; and her attitude also revealed the innate sexism of the world as she commented ‘In the 60s, I’d be glad of a pat on the bum’.
Certainly, us young women working in TV in the ‘90s just accepted many things. There was a saying ‘the code of the road’ or ‘what goes on tour stays on tour’. A male (married) director once tried it on with me repeatedly, and when I refused his advances, he bad-mouthed me to the bosses. What redress did I have? Anything I said looked like sour grapes. Morals were all over the shop: I even wrote a book about it myself, come to think of it, my 2nd thriller BAD FRIENDS is about a TV producer who is stalked – possibly by someone she’s upset on a show. It was inspired, in part, by my worries about the morality of TV and vulnerable ‘punters’; it features a pilot show called ‘You’re Dumped’ in which – yep, you guessed it.
When Rolf Harris was arrested in real life, a researcher working for me at the time was unsurprised: ‘Yeah, he was very gropey’. Another male presenter I worked with was known to like young blonde researchers, despite being ‘happily’ married. He didn’t try it on with me; when I found out afterwards about his predilection, I was almost offended that he hadn’t – that’s how fucked we/ the system is. We were always meant to be grateful for our jobs; ‘There’s 100 people queuing at the door for your role,’ I was told at MTV when I asked for a payrise. Years later, working for a major TV production company who broke our contracts over Christmas even though we worked endless hours and weekends etc, I complained. And that was it – I never worked for them again. (And the male directors always got paid more, that went without saying.)
Incidentally, in the late ‘90s, as a researcher on a chat show, I took a call from a woman about her husband, a (late) Tory peer I believe who, amongst other things, had apparently enjoyed sex with pigs, on his country estate. She claimed he was part of a paedophile ring full of judges, politicians and other powerful men – and no-one did anything when she reported it. She’d even self-published her own book about it because none of the publishers had wanted to touch the story: I think she was largely marked down as mad – and complicit. She came on the show, but sure enough, she was warned by the legal team against saying anything very much. I’d tried to get some information out there – but it was difficult.
And tragically and unsurprisingly, vulnerable children of both sexes were sitting ducks for abuse that’s turned out to be rife (from the Catholic priests through the Yew Tree investigations and of course the endless care homes) Of course, this was doubtless all helped by the fact that in the ‘60s and ‘70s, kids were still, largely, seen and not heard, and adults were always right.
So why didn’t the adults speak out in the Savile case? (apart from the brave nurses, that is) – but who else reported it? Why didn’t someone – or a few someones – put their head above the parapet?
I know books have since been written about it, but personally I wonder if it’s because we secretly fear and even despise those who dare to question the status quo. We don’t want to rock the boat; seas must remain calm for us to carry on, keeping our heads down. Whistle-blowers are dangerous. The ‘Establishment’ protects us – doesn’t it? (it doesn’t really; it protects itself – just see Cameron, Blair & numerous utterly corrupt governments et al). But where would we be without the Establishment? We need to toe lines… don’t we?
Well, no. But if we don’t stand up together, we can’t seem to stand up at all, often because we’re too isolated.
In a similar but slightly tangential vein: A while back, my partner took his old firm to tribunal after working for them for fifteen years, every hour God sent, promoted to management; getting production up and exceeding targets. After ten of those years, the family owners brought in a new, unscrupulous and basically deceitful MD who’d keep you on – as long as you lied/ cheated/ bribed your way to bring work in for the company, and did things like shared prostitutes on foreign trips to show you were ‘one of the lads’. If you complained about the culture, your reputation was soon ruined – or outright lies were told about porn or sexual harassment.
My partner is a very good man. He is incredibly honest and couldn’t bear this culture; after refusing to ‘play the game’, within five years he was made redundant. Despite being a single dad who’d already been through the mill with a horrible divorce and delivered all his targets, he was walked out of the office on Dec 22nd – yes, 3 whole days before Christmas, with no warning – and in fact, a recorded promise that his job was safe. He’d been very popular at work but he was further devastated to find that NONE of his work-force contacted him afterwards – all too scared of riling the MD; too scared to look a good man in the eye and say ‘I’m more worried about paying the mortgage than I am about whether you’ve been treated right’. It was soul-destroying and in the end, he took the firm to tribunal because he wanted to fight for what he believed was right. (Did any of the family whom he’d worked for for years ever contact him to see he was OK? Of course not. He’d been entirely dispensable, it turned out – and he really struggled to find another job of the same quality, his confidence utterly shaken.)
As for me – I left TV and am retraining to be a counsellor. I love many people I met working in the industry, but I also came across some of the worst egos, horribly competitive environments and a level of stress that the job didn’t warrant. And I am aware that – as my dear OH said the other day ‘What depresses me about life is how the big fish get away with doing what they want & the little guys are so often kept down.’
People are scared, I suppose. We watch the huge corporations do what they want to do; evade taxes and the like, and the rich get richer and the powerful abuse their power, and celebrities get away with behaving in ways real people wouldn’t get away with in the same way (mostly), and dictators in other countries becoming unstoppable. But then – look at the brave citizens of Aleppo, for instance, who have stayed, fighting to keep their city going despite the horror.
I say: if we don’t stand up for what we believe in, no-one else will (apart from completely amazing people like Jo Cox, that is, amongst a few others. RIP, dear Jo). If we don’t stand up and be counted, the corruption becomes endemic..
And together we could try to be a little braver; just a little bit? Couldn’t we give it a try, at least?