Savile sex scandal spurs British soul searching

The late Jimmy Savile is seen in this photo from June 4, 2002, with people from Commonwealth countries during Golden Jubilee celebrations.
afp/getty images
The late Jimmy Savile is seen in this photo from June 4, 2002, with people from Commonwealth countries during Golden Jubilee celebrations.

LONDON — Jimmy Savile was one of Britain’s biggest stars — and, allegedly, one of its worst sexual predators. Now the nation is asking whether there was a link between one and the other.

Was this man at the heart of the nation’s popular culture a product of the permissive 1960s and ’70s, or do the conditions that allegedly let him get away with repeated child sex abuse still exist, even as awareness of the problem is more widespread?

‘‘We’re kidding ourselves if we think it is all hunky dory now, but obviously it was more lax,’’ said Sarah Nelson, a child abuse specialist at Edinburgh University. ‘‘The culture among disc jockeys at the time allowed a license you wouldn’t get now.’’


Savile, who died a year ago at age 84, came to fame in an era of social transformation. He started out as a dance hall DJ in the early days of rock ’n’ roll before breaking into television in the early 1960s as host of the music program ‘‘Top of the Pops.’’ Later he hosted ‘‘Jim’ll Fix It,’’ a TV show in which he made young viewers’ wishes come true.

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The rules of social and sexual behavior in Britain were changing in the ’60s and ’70s — and along with new freedoms came opportunities for abuse. Savile’s career in the exploding world of popular entertainment gave him access to legions of star-struck young people.

‘‘It was all opening up — the pop stars, the glamour — and he was able to take advantage of it because of course he became famous and he could introduce them to famous people, get them on ‘Top of the Pops’ and all that,’’ said Max Clifford, Britain’s best-known celebrity publicist.

Savile was further shielded from scrutiny by the notion that celebrities are larger-than-life figures who exist outside normal social constraints. With his brightly colored tracksuits, big cigars, and aggressively jocular screen persona, he appeared to many, a harmless oddball — one in a long roster of British eccentrics.

‘‘The public made Jimmy Savile. It loved him. It knighted him,’’ argued writer Andrew O’Hagan in the London Review of Books.


‘‘A whole entertainment structure was built to house him and make him feel secure. That’s no one’s fault: Entertainment, like literature, thrives on weirdos, and Savile entered a culture made not only to tolerate his oddness but to find it refreshing.’’

Savile’s celebrity became a shield. So did his charity work, which brought him into contact with young people who were vulnerable — students at a school for troubled girls, patients at a psychiatric hospital, and a spinal injuries unit.

‘‘He had a lot of power and influence, which is something you find with a lot of pedophiles who get away with it for a long time,’’ Nelson said.

And, she added, ‘‘he was manipulative — picking victims that either would not be believed or were discredited or were physically disabled and literally could not get away from him.’’

Since allegations about Savile were broadcast in a TV documentary in early October, scores of women have come forward to allege that as underage girls they were abused by the late entertainer — in his Rolls-Royce, in BBC dressing rooms, in the schools and hospitals he visited. Police say they have identified 300 potential victims of Savile and associates stretching back almost half a century.


Savile’s behavior had spawned whispers and speculation. One former member of the BBC’s board of governors said by the late 1990s Savile was regarded as a ‘‘creepy sort of character’’ and had been barred from the broadcaster’s Children in Need charity telethons.

Free rein

But his behavior was never formally investigated by the BBC.

Youngsters made several complaints to police over the years, none of which led to charges. The chief of London’s Metropolitan Police, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has apologized, saying police failed to piece together Savile’s ‘‘pattern of behavior’’ from the disparate complaints.

British police vow that the Savile case will be a watershed moment in combating child abuse, and child protection authorities have stressed that awareness has increased enormously in recent years.

Scandals within several large institutions — from the Roman Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts — have led to soul-searching and stronger rules to protect children.