One question keeps coming up as the allegations against Sir Jimmy Savile pour in: why has it taken until now for these allegations to come out? The Metropolitan Police say they stretch back over 50 years to 1959. Derek Chinnery, the controller of Radio 1 between 1978 and 1985 claims he confronted Savile about them twenty years ago. The People report today that an interviewer questioned Savile on the matter in 2001.
If the rumour mill was in overdrive that long ago, why has it taken until 2012 for these allegations to come out unambiguously into the public domain? The BBC has flatly denied that a planned Newsnight documentary was dropped last December because the material might embarrass the organisation. Anyone wishing to make an allegation against Savile while he was alive would have been daunted by his public image, charity work and reputation. The allegations against him were all in the days before the Internet, which meant that it was far harder to join the dots between claims from Broadmoor and from Haut de la Garenne in Jersey. An anonymous writer in the Observer points to what she claims is a culture of sexual harassment masquerading as “banter” in TV.
The most important reason that it’s taken so long for the scandal to emerge is simple: he died last year. Dead people cannot sue for defamation. The deceased’s relatives can, but only if the remarks about the deceased reflect negatively on them as well. In Savile’s case, the allegations have nothing to do with his family.
Newspapers are scared of libel, and rightly so. Lose a libel case and the costs can cripple or even sink a news outlet. A newspaper would have needed airtight evidence against Savile before publishing, which in a sexual abuse claim is very difficult to obtain. Even if somehow a paper had got hold of evidence that seemed rock-solid, the lawyers might have decided they didn’t have the stomach for a long battle in the courts anyway.
There is a sense that Savile has “cheated” the system by not being alive to face the allegations against him. There is a balance to be struck between the right of innocent people not to be labelled as child molesters against the freedom of the press. It looks as if Savile was able to take advantage of this intention, leaving behind a trail of victims which is only being unravelled after his death.