We saw the side of Jimmy Savile we wanted to believe in
We are all filled with revulsion by the abuses allegedly perpetrated by the late Sir Jimmy Savile. Yet, how much are all of us in our different ways guilty of creating this tragedy?
I have got to put my hand up here. I, along with probably a legion of other public relations people, helped support Savile’s public profile. We played along, excusing his sometimes odd ways, he was after all an eccentric.
For my part, I was on the committee that bestowed him with the award, Yorkshireman of the Year. At the time, it seemed fitting for a man who had used his celebrity to raise millions for charity. I also played a key role in promoting the Yorkshire Spinal Injuries Centre, which we positioned as the Stoke Mandeville of the North. We recognised that we didn’t have a hope in hell of toppling the immense profile that Sir Jimmy had built there, but we thought we might borrow a little of his fame.
I even encouraged my daughter, along with a group of friends, to take part in a junior Sir Jimmy Savile lookalike competition I ran to promote a shopping centre in Leeds city centre. (Thank God, the man himself was nowhere near).
When arranging photocalls to promote everything from good causes to curry houses, Sir Jimmy was often the man we called upon. I was willingly contributing to his public profile, his brand image of the lovable eccentric. So do did many others.
It now seems those photocalls and those public appearances were all part of his cover. Together they created a shield, behind which he was allowed to conduct the abuse of which he has been posthumously accused.
At the time we felt we were using him. Sir Jimmy turning up almost guaranteed publicity and for charities; his presence helped to raise awareness of their cause and aims.
Of course, it now appears he was using us. We weren’t entirely ignorant. We knew of a whiff of rumours, a vague hint that not everything about the man was good. Yet we carried on. Why?
The dreadful case of Christopher Jefferies, the man arrested by Bristol police in the hunt for the murderer of Joanna Yeates, showed why we should be wary of trampling on the principle of innocent until proved guilty.
It is right that whispers and idle gossip aren’t allowed to become accepted fact, but if the recent revelations can teach us anything it’s that we should be very wary of putting celebrities on a pedestal simply because of the good they appear to do.
We’ve all heard people say, “I’ve heard of him, so he must be all right” and with Sir Jimmy, who made much of volunteering as a hospital porter, there was a tendency to think “Well, if he’s doing good there, he must be doing good elsewhere.”
No one is perfect. Yet we live in a world of what Mark Borkowski calls the Now Economy populated by Marmite brands – Sir Jimmy knew there were people who thought him odd, but he also knew there were equal numbers who loved him for exactly that same quality.
We have come to think in black and white terms. If someone is deemed good, as Sir Jimmy was until recently, anything which doesn’t fit that image is quietly put to one side.
Our reluctance to believe that people we have held in the esteem may be fatally flawed is nothing new. Legend has it that as American baseball legend Shoeless Joe Jackson was leaving the court during an alleged match rigging trial, a boy ran up and begged of him: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” The story goes that Jackson did not respond.
We all have heroes, for some Sir Jimmy Savile was one, but that status can cause us to become blind to reality. We impose on them a set of expectations and beliefs, one that denies the existence of shortcomings.
Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness”, meaning the quality of stating the concepts one wishes or believes to be true rather than the facts.
Before he died, the truthiness about Sir Jimmy Savile was that he was a lovable eccentric, a tireless charity fund-raiser, a proud Yorkshireman. Partly that was the image he had spent years cultivating, but partly it was the way we wanted to see him.
One major positive I would take from this sordid episode is how the truth will out. You will ultimately get the reputation you deserve.
While this may be too late for many of Savile’s victims, it does restore some semblance of natural justice. For me, I also need to come to terms with my role, albeit modest and minor, in contributing to the existence of an alleged monster. Unlike the years which passed when people ignored the rumours, now it is time for us all to confront what happened.
Andy Green is a partner at GREEN Communications in Wakefield.