It’s about the children…

The Jimmy Savile story has provoked a huge amount of reaction – revulsion, disgust, anger, frustration, and great many attempts to find someone or something to blame. One of the biggest questions being asked is why we didn’t find out about it earlier – so many people seem to have known about it, or at least suspected what was happening, so why didn’t the news come out?

Many different suggestions have been made. Some blame the BBC – and its failures as an institution over this and related matters are all too clear. Some have blamed the libel laws – saying that they would have told the story if it hadn’t been for the threat of a big law suit. For me (as someone who teaches defamation law) that one really doesn’t wash: it may have made a small difference, but newspapers and others have published many, many stories over the years with far less evidence and with pretty much a guarantee of legal action. If they really wanted to publish, they would have.

Some of the ‘mea culpa’ stories from celebrities and others who knew but said nothing have rung true – but others haven’t. For many of them, if they’d really wanted to, they could have said something. For some it might have been ‘career suicide’ to do so – but is your career worth so much? Is anything worth so much?

That, brings me to my point. The main reason, as I see it, that the information didn’t get out, it ultimately that we didn’t care enough. Why? Well, there are two closely connected issues. Firstly, the idea of a man having sex with a young girl wasn’t (and still isn’t) considered such a bad thing. Rock-stars and underage groupies wasn’t (and still isn’t) seen as child abuse by a large number of people. The opposite. It’s almost one of the perks of the job. That’s not just a 70s attitude, it’s a current one. If you look back at the story of the 15 year old girl who went off to France with her 30s teacher, some of the reactions – indeed some of the press coverage – made that very clear. ‘Lucky bloke’ was how it was described by some. The story was presented to a great extent as titillating, a bit scandalous, not as what it was. For many men, the idea of a good-looking and ‘mature’ 15 year old girl seemed very attractive – and if you look at (for example) the sidebar on the Mail Online you can see that idea repeated again and again and again.

The second point, though it might not seem so obvious, is closely related: our overall attitude to young people. We don’t respect them – and we don’t take them seriously. We don’t listen to them, and we don’t believe them – and they know it. We laugh at their taste in music (Justin Bieber, One Direction etc) and their taste in clothes – or we demonise them as terrifying youths in hoodies. What we don’t do is treat them with respect, and try to properly listen to them or be willing to take seriously what they take seriously. To some parents – at least as it’s presented in the media – children are possessions or investments, or devices to be controlled. To some people children are something to be ‘managed’, or corralled like cattle – stop them gathering on street corners, ban them from places. The whole ASBO approach to children took this angle. Does it help? Only at the most superficial level – and it spreads a culture that says that children and young people aren’t worth listening to. They’re a problem to be managed.

So of course it’s hard for children to speak up when things really matter. If they’re not used to being listened to or taken seriously, they won’t talk. If they’re used to their wishes and ideas being either derided or over-riden, why would they think it was worth trying to be heard?

Of course what Savile did was hideously monstrous, and I doubt very much that many of those who knew or had suspicions over Savile and didn’t speak up knew that much of it – but the many who knew a little and didn’t speak up either knew they wouldn’t be listened to, or didn’t think it was such a big deal. Given our attitudes to children in other ways, the more ‘obvious’ stuff he did – groping a few teenaged girls on TV or in his caravan – wouldn’t have been seen as such a big deal. That attitude wasn’t (and isn’t) restricted to a few institutions or a few people – it pervaded (and to an extent still pervades) pretty much our whole society.

That’s not say things aren’t getting better – I think they are, but not to the extent that some people seem to think. Until we show more respect to children, until we listen more to children, until we trust our children a lot more, things won’t change nearly enough…