Louis Theroux on Jimmy Savile: A Monster Empowered by Complicity
How did Jimmy Savile, a popular BBC presenter unmasked as a predatory sex offender after his death in 2011, get away with it? It has only become more sickening and bewildering as the gravity of Savile’s crimes has sunk into the national consciousness.
How did this serial rapist and paedophile, who the police believe assaulted dozens of victims - most of them children and young people, many vulnerable or disabled - perpetrate these offences nationwide over six decades and go to the grave without facing justice?
These were the difficult questions asked by Louis Theroux in his documentary Theroux: Savile. Theroux originally interviewed and befriended Savile in the early 2000s for his awkwardly comical When Louis Met… series, for which Savile’s “loveable eccentric” public image seemed perfectly suited.
But to Theroux, there was something about the sleazy and elusive Savile that instinctively disturbed him. In returning to the subject, Theroux exhibited a palpable sense of regret and guilt that he did not investigate Savile further.
Theroux deserves credit, though, for being the journalist who got closest to unmasking Savile in his lifetime, unlike like those who bought Savile’s facade or were scared off by his threats of libel action. Theroux put the allegations of abuse to Savile on film, which he predictably denied. He later made contact with former “girlfriends” of Savile’s - one of whom had been 15.
Theroux’s most revealing piece of footage was undercover, capturing Savile discussing his days as a nightclub disc jockey in the 60s. Savile revoltingly bragged about directing his bouncers to assault patrons and then blackmailing police officers with the abuse of their underage daughters to prevent further action. “I never got nicked,” the thug sneered triumphantly. This moment was chilling given our understanding of the real Savile.
“Psychopath” is an overused label, but it is the only way of describing Savile, who used his status and influence as a showbiz personality and charity fundraiser to access institutions ranging from NHS hospitals, to schools, care homes and even the BBC itself to target victims.
He was an arrogant narcissist who bragged about his connections to the powerful - including politicians and royals, which provided him with a sense of self-entitled untouchability.
Savile was satisfied by engaging in deceit and manipulation
With his personal honesty and interviews of Savile’s victims, Theroux more than compensates for his own sense of failure and being “hoodwinked” by Savile. The most profound moment came at the end of the documentary, when one of the victims suggested that Theroux himself had been groomed, to which he responded with a stunned silence.
Theroux makes clear that Savile was satisfied by engaging in deceit and manipulation. He publicly made sick jokes about his abuse of children and even described taking home an underage girl in one of his autobiographies. How was he able not only to lie in plain sight as a predator, but brazenly project himself as one for his own twisted gratification?
There were reports to multiple police forces who failed to corroborate them, so institutional failures did play a role in protecting Savile. But we have to confront that he was also facilitated by cultures of silence and complicity.
The Smith Review revealed that there was a passive acceptance of Savile’s behaviour in the BBC, and a preferential treatment that ignored complaints and put the reputation of the organisation first.
Testimonies from the victims themselves have been equally as damning. Take the psychiatric patient sexually assaulted at Broadmoor - one of the NHS hospitals where Savile was given a free reign to abuse - who was punished by staff with solitary confinement for speaking out.
Or take the victim and witness who were told to “forget about it” and threatened with arrest by the police for reporting rape and sexual assault by Savile.
These are only a selection of instances where the professionals trusted by the victims treated them with contempt and disbelief in Savile’s favour, attitudes which undoubtedly empowered him throughout his lifetime of offending.
Savile was described as having groomed the nation
Similar mentalities were pervasive in high-profile cases such as in Rotherham, Oxfordshire and Nottinghamshire, where local authorities prioritised self-interest and covered up abuse and exploitation. They frequently smeared victims as liars and attention seekers, in effect institutionalising the victim blaming tactics typical of sex offenders.
The evidence is overwhelming that in Rochdale and Leicester, these practices allowed powerful men such as Cyril Smith and Greville Janner to prolifically abuse children in institutions and escape justice like Savile.
The various cases of systemic cover-up and failure led Theresa May to establish the Home Office’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, with the aim of unearthing the truth of the past, and learning to make recommendations to protect potential victims in the present and future.
Marred by internal arguments and resignations, Theroux’s expose of Savile highlights why the inquiry must be properly resourced and headed by a competent chair, to perform its duties and collect evidence without delay.
There are no easy answers on the reforms needed to strengthen child protection, but a starting point is the mandatory reporting law advocated by a number of child abuse charities. This would make it a criminal offence for responsible professionals to fail to report concerns of abuse, or deliberately conceal it, which was a fundamental element in the crimes of Savile.
In the Giving Victims a Voice report released in 2013, Savile was described as having groomed the nation. But in truth, he was provided with easy hunting grounds by the negligence and cowardice of those in authority.
Theroux’s reaction to Savile - his personal sense of guilt and need to reexplore his own complicity - reflects a collective one.
About the author
Jacob Richardson began his career with Disclaimer and writes on culture, politics and society. Politically he is a democratic socialist and Labour Party supporter. His other interests include cinema, psychoanalysis and professional wrestling.
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