How did Jimmy Savile fool everyone for so long?

Jimmy Savile at the BBC in 1972 (Photo: PA)

I have just been watching a replay of the BBC Panorama programme about Jimmy Savile. There were many clips of his very successful TV programmes dominated by Savile himself, with his trademark cigar, platinum hair and wearing his tracksuit. With the advantage of hindsight we all now know that he was far from the public-spirited eccentric that he presented in the media. Watching his antics during the Panorama programme, the question in my mind was: how did he get away with not just fooling some of the people some of the time, but seemingly all the people all the time – for decades?

Some of the answer to this lies in the institutional blindness of the BBC to the reality behind Savile’s smiling, zany mask. Mary Riddell, in an article about Savile in the Telegraph, rehearsed the well-known quote of Edmund Burke that evil flourishes when good men do nothing. But in this case it seems that the BBC did nothing because they saw nothing; they lived in a complacent cocoon in which high ratings and celebrity status were all-important.

This inability to see what is obvious can be true of any institution – including the Church. I am not talking here about cover-ups in the case of child abuse (though that has parallels with the Savile case) but more generally: when the self-belief of an institution takes over and becomes an end in itself, so that no one says “Wait a minute. What’s going on here?” Self-preservation has become more important than truth.

These reflections followed both the Savile programme and an article by Jim Graves which I then read in Catholic World Report, about a group of sedevacantist nuns who returned to the Church five years ago and who are now thriving in a new religious community. Sedevacantists, for those who have not come across them, do not accept the legitimacy of any of the popes since the end of the Second Vatican Council; they believe that all the recent popes – Paul VI, John Paul I and II and now Pope Benedict XVI – are “illegitimate” because they have preached modernist doctrines and that the Ordinary rite of Mass and the Sacraments are invalid.

Ordinary Catholics think that to have a mindset like this is weird as well as extreme – but it happens. Group-think takes over, reinforced by isolation from everyday life, and before you know it you have a skewed view of reality which is quite out of touch with the norm. It could be the BBC, with its cult of a “celebrity” like Savile and its refusal to notice certain peculiar features of his act; or it could be a band of ultra-faithful Catholics, deciding to march away from the Church and set up an alternative magisterium of their own.

Sister Mary Eucharista, one of the former sedevacantist nuns who have now returned to Rome, says tellingly that “the traditional environment [she was living with her family] kept us from being concerned about the cult-like practices of the group”. These practices included women having to wear long dresses and cover their heads; being discouraged from reading newspapers and watching TV; and smoking being regarded as a mortal sin. Another nun, Mother Kathryn Joseph, added, “It seemed like an oasis of Catholic culture. We never saw ourselves as separate from the Catholic Church. In fact, we thought the Catholic Church left us.”

Gradually the truth filtered through: the Sisters saw devout rank-and-file Catholics on a pilgrimage to Rome; they watched EWTN; they met members of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity as well as faithful, mainstream parish clergy. These slowly combined to “break the spell of lies the Sisters were living under”. Mother Kathryn Joseph admits: “I realised I had been wrong for 35 years. But I was happy to have been proved wrong.”

What about the BBC? The spell has certainly been rudely broken. Now tearing itself apart over the huge number of allegations surrounding Savile (300 at the last count), will it do some serious soul-searching and return to the high standards of its original remit as a public service broadcaster – or will it intone the mantra “Nothing like this must ever happen again”, go through the motion of official enquiries but still seek to preserve its self-serving, sharp-suited (as journalist Peter Oborne describes it) fiefdom?