Allegations about the late Jimmy Savile’s abuse of young girls have led to a curious binary set of reactions. On the one hand, we are shocked and appalled. On the other hand, we knew all along.
There were always rumours, of course. Journalist Lynn Barber, in a 1990 interview, put the allegation to Savile: “What people say is that you like little girls.”
But a mixture of fear of privacy and libel laws, and the censorious pressure that prominent, well-connected figures can impose not just on weak and insecure young girls and their families, meant the rumours were never properly confronted. Even the BBC’s Newsnight would not broadcast the allegations .
Former tabloid editor Brian Hitchen wrote yesterday that England’s libel laws “too often help make those like Savile untouchable.”
Even now, the threat of libel suits could hang over newspapers seeking to further investigate allegations made by women who testified in ITV’s documentary about Savile.
The law should not be a tool for the powerful to silence the weak. And this is all about power: men over women, celebrity over the unknown, rich over poor.
As more stories emerge about the likes of Savile and Gary Glitter, I cannot help but compare it with the widespread clerical abuse that gripped the state of Ireland for many years. The enormity of this child Gulag has been revealed in a series of official reports in the past few years, with grim testimony given as victims finally found a space where they could speak of their experiences.
The reaction to those reports was revulsion. But it came from that same place of knowing and not knowing as the reaction to the Savile story. There cannot have been a person in Ireland who did not know that the church covered up child abuse. But we were reassured that they were bad apples, and it felt wrong to complain when there were so many good priests who did so much for our spiritual and physical wellbeing.
Savile pulled the same trick. How could you attack a man who did so much for the community?
In even the worst totalitarian regime, rumours about the rulers can circulate below the censor’s radar. But it’s only when we can proclaim, on the record and with confidence, our doubts about the rich, famous and powerful, that we can actually bring about change.
Padraig Reidy is News Editor of Index on Censorship
More on libel:
Why it’s vital that the government act to protect free speech
Five ludicrous libel cases
Last chance to sign our petition to reform libel laws that stifle debate, curtail criticism and even endanger lives