25 Feb 2013

Our sexual watershed

Music schools, parliament, the church, the media, allegations are flying around the corridors of virtually every institution in Britain. The Savile aftermath is having a vast effect on many who as children and adults were abused by others.

One abuse victim has told me that for her it was the horrifying suicide of the abused violinist who had suffered so gravely in the legal process involved in convicting her music professor.

The swirl of allegation and denial that is filling the airwaves is forcing many to relive the abuse inflicted upon them. I know this in part because in a small way I too was a victim as a child.

What we now know too is Savile did not just blow the lid off management structures at the BBC, but more importantly, his vile exploits also exposed the institutional tolerance of the established media to gross misbehaviour, so long as the celebrity was big enough.

One small comfort we can take is that many of us have truly been through a genuine sexual revolution – both in attitudes and behaviorally. Some have not. Some tabloids still have a long way to go, some of their websites still further. Indeed, the demand indicates many consumers may have a ways to travel too.

When I started in television more than three decades ago, many of the few women in the newsroom were treated first and foremost sex objects and only secondarily journalists. Remarks about physique and ‘sexiness’ were rife.

There was improper touching too, a needless brushing in passing, a pinched bottom. But above all there was a constant and prodigious intake of alcohol. The bar was ‘in-house’ and inexpensive. Many would start at lunchtime, resume after the early News, and start again before and after late news transmission – it was common to all broadcasters.

It was commonplace for some newscasters to go to air the worse for wear. And if that was happening in the news divisions, Savile tells us about what was happening in entertainment.

There’s little doubt in my mind that this alcoholic intake severely depleted the judgement of many as to what was proper or improper.

The contrast with today is acute. I know almost no one who drinks at lunchtime or indeed any time before the working day is done. The bar has long since left media work places. The desperate stench of cigarettes is gone. Women are journalists at last, on an increasingly equal footing.

The women and children who were abused at the hands of the church, the politicians, the media and beyond have suffered acutely during the Savile revelations. Savile has most savagely resurrected their own memories of abuse. The courageous individuals who have come forward to speak publicly about what Savile did to them, have inspired others to come forward to expose their abusers. And it will continue for a time to come.

And whilst we in broadcasting, in the law, in parliament, in education, and in wider society must tread with diligence and great care to both accuser and accused, we owe it to those who suffered in a hopefully departing age, to have the full protection of us all in ensuring that their claims thoroughly investigated and responded to.

This is a dramatic moment in the affairs of men and women; we shall all be tested. But don’t underestimate what this time means to the abused. I know, I was six years old when a member of the domestic staff at the school, where my father taught, abducted me.

He took me to his room and undressed me, and then himself. Thank heavens someone saw the abduction and eventually a member of staff intervened and rescued me. I remember to this day fretting over not being able to do my braces up. And I admit that I have found Savile regurgitating the guilt and confusion that I felt.

No amount of effort in responding to complainants must be spared, but neither must it be allowed to become a witch-hunt. We face some delicate balances in which the welfare of many is at stake. But I suspect the journey has only just begun.



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