from Jean Calder

Every day brings further allegations of serial abuse of young girls by Jimmy Savile, at the BBC, in two children’s homes and three hospitals, including maximum security Broadmoor. The Metropolitan Police, co-ordinating the police investigation, have confirmed they are now in contact with 60 potential victims, with 340 lines of inquiry and continue to liaise with 14 police forces. They have officially recorded 12 allegations, but expect this number to grow.

Following earlier apparent paralysis in the face of allegations about offences on its premises by one of its biggest stars, the  BBC has apologised and declared it will undertake three separate inquiries. The first, which will start straight away, will examine why the Newsnight programme that investigated the allegations of sexual abuse was not aired, while two sycophantic tribute programmes to Savile went ahead. A second will examine whether culture and practice at the BBC at the time enabled Savile’s abuse. This will wait until police inquiries are complete. The third inquiry will apparently relate to more general allegations of sexual harassment at the BBC.

Rob Wilson M.P. has called for a genuinely independent public inquiry into the dropping of Newsnight’s investigation into Savile, but it seems a public inquiry with a much broader remit is now demanded. A pattern is emerging not just of cruel indifference to the abuse of young girls, but also systemic and institutional sexism and a level of active collusion and cover-up which suggests possible conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. Narrow inquiries with limited remit simply will not do.

The Department of Health (DoH) has said it will investigate the decision to appoint Sir Jimmy Savile as head of a taskforce overseeing Broadmoor hospital in 1988, where he volunteered for 40 years, reportedly held keys and abused young vulnerable patients. However, health service managers have shown less interest in investigating allegations that hospital managers colluded with Savile’s abuse of female patients. Criminal justice agencies seem similarly reluctant to  acknowledge and examine their own past failures, but it surely is only a matter of time. Yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph lists at least 6 lost opportunities to bring Savile to justice which appear to have been missed or even sabotaged by the police or crown prosecution service.

We’ve heard several commentators and journalists suggest the attitudes at the BBC and elsewhere were ‘permissive’ in the 1960s and 1970s and that things are different now. Yet we know that sexual abuse of teenage girls is widespread.  In June this year, Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner for England told M.P.s that “sexual exploitation of children is happening all over the country.”  She quoted a police officer from a “very lovely, leafy, rural part of the country” who had told her: “There isn’t a town, village or hamlet in which children are not being sexually exploited.” She told of girls as young as 11 “summoned” via BlackBerry Messenger, and forced to perform oral sex on a line-up of gang members, one after another. Berelowitz called on MPs and everyone else to “lay aside their denial”.

In Rochdale, where there was systematic and often violent sexual abuse of teenage girls, their allegations were repeatedly ignored by agencies who, like the abusers, considered the girls to be prostitutes. Despite strong evidence, the CPS refused to prosecute the cases, something that changed only when Nazir Afzal took over as senior crown prosecutor. There are many more such cases, most of which will never get to trial.

The widespread publicity which followed the Rochdale case focussed on the victims’ ethnicity rather than their gender, suggesting that the girls may have been targeted by male perpetrators of Pakistani origin because they were ‘white’ rather than because they were young females. The media coverage of Savile’s offences has focussed on his ‘paedophilia’, stressing the victims’ age and vulnerability rather than their gender. Yet it was the fact that they were young females that made them targets, and sexism, rather than age and even disability, which made them most vulnerable to abuse. All child abuse involves abuse of power and boys are sometimes victims and suffer grievously.  However, it is girls who are overwhelmingly more likely to experience sexual abuse, especially of a serial nature. It is  sexism which creates contempt for young girls so deep-rooted that an adult man can serially abuse them and others treat it as a fact of life. It is sexism which leads police and prosecutors to ignore victims’ allegations – and others to keep quiet because a donation is more important than girls’ safety.

There are many agencies which have informally and for years been treating girls over 12 (and sometimes under that age) as if they could give informed consent. They have failed to act if young girls appear ‘willing’ and in respect of allegations of rape or assault, have applied to them all the prejudices to which adult victims are subject. It is easier and cheaper to believe that girls and women fantasise, make malicious allegations or get drunk and lead men on, than to mount effective investigations.

In an excellent article in the Guardian Jonathan Freedland linked the police’s treatment of Savile’s victims with that of other rape victims. He wrote: “There are big questions here for the police. Some wonder if the Met is overdue another “Macpherson moment“, in which it is forced to confront its own institutional sexism the way the Stephen Lawrence case laid bare its racism. It is at least clear that it has enormous work to do to win the trust of women, so that it becomes a first instinct of those who are attacked to report the fact.”

Jane Root, controller of BBC2 from 1999-2004, told the Observer there needed to be a examination of  perceived sexism in the BBC, and “throughout television” in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was, she said  “this sexist atmosphere, although a totally different thing, that assisted a very dedicated paedophile such as Savile to operate in the middle of it all,”.

There seems little doubt that she is right about that – except that, in our view, sexism is not a ‘different’ thing, but lies at the root of almost all sexual offences against females, whatever their age. And though the abuse of a girl is an even crueler offence than the abuse of an adult woman, the difference is in degree, not in kind.

We need a full independent public inquiry, not just into how key agencies and institutions mishandled the Savile case, but also ways in which those same agencies and institutions – principally the police and CPS – have, over the years, failed countless victims of  rape and sexual assault.

15th October 2012

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