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Jimmy Savile: Establishment Hero

Ten years ago today, Jimmy Savile died a national hero. Since then he has been exposed as a brutal child abuser – but his rise would have been impossible without powerful friends in the British establishment.

There’s an amateur video uploaded recently onto YouTube of a 1978 summer fete raising money for blind children. Jimmy Savile—who preferred small, local charities over large ones with organised structures—speaks from the podium, and is handed a child’s drawing of his face. ‘Shall we tell them what this drawing is of?’ says Savile, before jolting his arm upwards and barking: ‘That is a photo-fit of the Yorkshire Ripper.’ A second or two of discomfort, perhaps, but the overwhelming noise on the audio is laughter and applause.

1978 was three years before the Yorkshire Ripper was caught, and at the exact point at which the NSPCC would later identify as the apex of Savile’s abuse. The preceding years had seen Savile working his way upwards through media elites—dancehalls, to radio, to pop television, to primetime flagship television—as well as integrating into the National Health Service. The years that followed, however, can be understood as Savile tirelessly working upwards through the British establishment—the Thatcher government, the monarchy, and an ever present relationship with the police.

Organisations like the BBC and the NHS have both—correctly—been subject to long, detailed enquiries. There has been some investigation into the police. The British establishment, however, has faced little such formal scrutiny into their complicity with Savile’s crimes. As we mark ten years since the death of Savile, it’s important that this history does not go unremembered.

The Thatcher Government

When Jimmy Savile was knighted in 1990, it was the result of a concentrated decade of networking at the upper end of the British establishment, most particularly with Margaret Thatcher. During the politically febrile 1970s, Savile appears to have hedged his bets, filming a 1974 party political broadcast with Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe. Liberal politician Cyril Smith, who would be unmasked as a paedophile in the aftermath of Savile’s death, enjoyed a light entertainment turn on Savile’s ‘Clunk Click’ programme.

Savile’s first encounter with Margaret Thatcher was at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in 1977. Two years later, on the eve of the general election that would take her to power, Thatcher appeared with Savile on ‘Jim’ll Fix It’, smiling that she wanted Savile to ‘fix’ her becoming Prime Minister.

Savile’s repeated assertion that he spent numerous Christmas Day dinners with the Thatcher family has no evidence—we should be careful of repeating the claims of paedophiles. All the same, files do show that Savile spent two New Year’s Day lunches at Chequers with Thatcher.

Savile learned how to become politically useful for Thatcher, using a fundraising bid to save the government from the embarrassment of having to close down the country’s main spinal injuries unit as a result of its own budget cuts. In 1986, after yet another civil service rebuttal for a Savile knighthood, Thatcher’s then private secretary Nigel Wicks wrote to Robert Armstrong, then Cabinet Secretary, ‘She (Thatcher) wonders how many more times his name is to be pushed aside, especially in view of all the great work he has done for Stoke Mandeville.’

In a revealing 1982 cartoon in the Sun, Savile is depicted as a gangster—complete with Fedora and machine gun—with Margaret Thatcher showing him pictures of Arthur Scargill, as well as Labour politicians Michael Foot, Tony Benn, and Dennis Healey, with the caption, ‘Bump off these lot and I’ll see you get a knighthood.’

Soon, Savile would come to the rescue of the Thatcher government yet again. In 1988, the entire management board of Broadmoor secure psychiatric hospital was suspended by Ken Clarke’s Department of Health. It would be, instead, replaced by a taskforce headed by Savile, who had been involved in the facility on a volunteer basis since the 1960s, but would now be given free rein of the hospital.

This was rubber stamped by Junior Health Minister Edwina Currie, who wrote ‘Attaboy!’ in her diaries on hearing Savile’s plans for reform at the hospital—which included union-busting, as Savile alleged that inflated overtime payments was rife among the unionised workforce. Currie later conceded that this was likely Savile blackmailing staff who could blow the whistle on his abuse.

Read the NHS investigations into Savile and there are numerous examples of everyday people with little power standing up to Savile, or at least doing what they could reasonably do, within their small domain, to protect those who were in their care. There are no such stories within the Thatcher government: only an elite who took him at face value time and time again.

In 2013, a year after the scale of Savile’s crimes became apparent and evidenced, Norman Tebbit said, ‘I’ve got no doubt Jimmy Savile was a very odd fellow, and I’m pretty sure he was in breach of the law on a number of matters… Jimmy did a great deal of good, as well as wrong. And in anybody’s life, you have to look at both sides of the ledger.’

The Monarchy

Savile claimed that he was introduced to the Royal Family first via Lord Mountbatten—a figure with persistent allegations of involvement in child sexual abuse. But it would be Savile’s relationship with Prince Charles that would prove far more significant. Meeting in 1977, Savile’s relationship to the Prince would be described by Diana as like that of ‘a mentor’. In tandem with his efforts to court Thatcher, Savile would begin work on the Royal family.

In 1985, Savile persuaded Charles and Diana—at the apex of their popularity—to appear on his primetime two-hour anti-drugs special ‘Drugswatch’. That year, during a gathering of health officials at Highgrove House, Charles referred to Savile as ‘my health advisor’.

Savile would be invited to Charles’ 40th birthday party celebrations. ‘He played the fool to our big-eared Prince’s Lear,’ explained one St James’ Palace aide to Dan Davies, whose 2015 book In Plain Sight remains the definitive work on Savile. After the birthday party, Savile would be seen regularly in Charles’ offices.

In 1990, when tensions between the married couple spilled out into public, Savile was brought in to ‘fix’ Charles’ marriage (confirmed in Davies’ interview with Dickie Arbiter, former press secretary to both Prince Charles and the Queen). Among Arbiter’s allegations is the claim that Savile was brought in to vet employees for Charles.

In another interview, Arbiter also alleged that Savile’s behaviour at St James’ Palace caused ‘concern and suspicion’. ‘He would walk into the office and do the rounds of the young ladies taking their hands and rubbing his lips all the way up their arms if they were wearing short sleeves,’ Arbiter said of Savile. ‘If it was summer [and their arms were bare] his bottom lip would curl out and he would run it up their arms.’

When Savile finally was named in the Queens’ honours, in 1990, he received personal congratulations from Charles, Diana, and Prince Andrew. Sarah Ferguson is even said to have made a homemade card. One of the most revealing public utterances Savile ever made was following his knighthood, to the journalist Lynn Barber:

‘I had a lively couple of years, with the tabloids sniffing about, asking round the corner shops—everything—thinking there must be something the authorities knew that they didn’t. Whereas in actual fact I’ve got to be the most boring geezer in the world because I ain’t got no past. And so, if nothing else, it was a gi-normous relief when I got the knighthood, because it got me off the hook.’

On his 80th birthday, in 2006, Savile received the gift of a box of Cuban cigars and a pair off cufflink from Prince Charles. ‘Nobody will ever know what you have done for this country,’ said an attached note. ‘This is to go some way in thanking you for that.’

The Police

As early as the 1960s, as a DJ in Manchester, Savile was cultivating close relationships with the police. In his shocking, long out-of-print 1974 autobiography As It Happens, Savile references a female officer being ‘dissuaded’ from bringing charges against him for harbouring a teenage runaway. She had done this, wrote Savile, ‘because it was well known that were I to go I would probably take half the station with me.’

Such was the extent that Savile’s crimes were known to the police, he was considered a person of interest during the Ripper investigations. Savile was brought in for questioning after members of the public contacted the police naming him as a possible suspect. After a body was found close to Savile’s Roundhay Park home, a Harley Street dentist was ordered to make a cast of Savile’s teeth.

When journalist Dan Davies first met Savile to begin work on the In Plain Sight book, he was first frisked by a serving West Yorkshire Police inspector. The inspector was a regular at Savile’s Friday Morning Club, the regular coffee mornings at his Leeds flat, which included several West Yorkshire Police figures. Savile was used to front West Yorkshire Police campaigns—his voice was even immortalised in ‘talking street signs’ in 2008 giving residents advice about crime prevention.

Though a 2013 HM Inspectorate of Constabulary report did investigate numerous police forces’ links to Savile—finding that ‘mistakes were made’—it is important to reflect on the substantial opportunities that were hampered by police negligence or corruption.

An anonymous letter in 1998, a victim coming forward in 2003, a 2008 complaint that reached both the police and a Sun journalist. In 2009, Savile was interviewed by Surrey police.

‘That’s why I have up in Yorkshire, where I live in Leeds, a collection of senior police persons, who come to see me socially,’ Savile explains. ‘I give them all my weirdo letters and they take them back to the station and say, “Oh, have you seen what Jimmy’s got today?”‘ When the police ask whether Savile gives them to the police to investigate, Savile clarifies. ‘No, no, not investigate them, no. Not going to do anything with them. But if anything happens to me…’

The Legacy

This summer, I read a Spectator diary piece by Petronella Wyatt, the British journalist whose affair with Boris Johnson once led to him being sacked from the Conservative Shadow Cabinet. ‘Back in the 1990s,’ wrote Wyatt, ‘I used to see teenage girls with eyes the colour of Verveine at some of the extravagant parties I was invited to. Looking back, I have a fair idea of why they were there. But it never occurred to me to ask their ages or protest their presence. Was I complicit?’

Turning a blind eye to child abuse occurs in all areas of life, across all sections of society, and across all classes. In the decade since Savile’s death, establishment attitudes towards child abuse have come under more, not less, scrutiny, with the Jeffrey Epstein scandal and continuing legal challenges against Prince Andrew.

One of the most revealing moments in Andrew’s 2019 BBC Newsnight interview came when he was asked about how he felt after his one-time friend Epstein was jailed in 2008 for soliciting and procuring a minor for prostitution. ‘It was one of those things,’ replied Andrew, ‘When somebody’s going through that sort of thing, well I’m terribly sorry, [but] I can’t see you.’

This month, a report estimated that over 216,000 children were victims of sexual violence by French Catholic priests in the post-war era. The scale of human suffering, the reach of that trauma, is incomprehensible. We must not view the Jimmy Savile crimes as a historical curiosity, but instead as a lens through which to greater understand how child sex abuse occurs, and to provide no safe space for those complicit in facilitating its horrors.

The British establishment has so far shown few signs of any seriousness about interrogating this.