What does the Jimmy Savile case tell us about received wisdom? Over the last few weeks it has become clear that one of the most famous people in Britain was known by very many people to be an active, abusive paedophile.
Many other people in broadcasting knew it. People in charities he was associated with knew it. People in hospitals he was associated with warned child patients about how to get around it. The person who founded Childline, no less, had heard about it. But nobody said or did anything.
We are told that there were various reasons for this. Savile himself is said to have threatened that there would be some funding shortfall for Stoke Mandeville hospital should claims about his rape of children be made public. In recent days many people have said that even in retirement Jimmy Savile was just too powerful. They appear to have mistaken him for Pol Pot or Stalin in their prime. It is like someone saying that they couldn’t testify in a murder case against Timmy Mallett or the Chuckle Brothers (note to lawyers: not that they would need to) because of the great power of life and death these men held.
Which brings me back to received wisdom. I have just been reading Daniel Hannan’s A Doomed Marriage about Britain and the EU, and the thought keeps recurring of how swiftly received wisdom can change. In the 1990s when ‘Business for Sterling’ was arguing that Britain should keep out of the Euro there were endless paid and unpaid panjandrums saying that people who wanted to retain the pound were every imaginable type of idiot and worse. In recent weeks and months many of these same people have now been declaring what a good thing it is that Britain never joined.
Now I do not want to compare the European Commission and its disgraced cheerleaders to rapacious paedophiles, but there is something similarly striking in all this. One day everybody believed one thing, the other almost everybody believed the opposite. And it is worth remembering that in the case of Jimmy Savile this is paedophilia we are talking about – that is, about the only thing in Britain that everybody can still find it in themselves to express moral outrage over. If the sexual abuse of children – and the sexual abuse of children with disabilities at that – is something that can be an unspoken secret because of fear and group-think (and when the fear is of a crappy low-grade entertainer) what does it say about our inability to deal with major issues arising from people who have real power?
Two things about human nature always come out of such stories: one is completely gloom-laden, the other inspiring. The gloom-laden one is this: that we are such appalling, gullible, fearful, weak and sheep-like creatures that we are willing to put up with anything – including (and as many figures in the Catholic church also recently demonstrated) massive on-going abuse of children – rather than make our lives difficult for even a moment by pointing to a terrible thing that is happening.
The positive thing is that it should remind us of the power that even one individual armed with the truth has to correct a terrible wrong. It is one of the most vital arguments for nearly limitless free-speech, that even one person with a dissenting view must be heard if we are to correct the errors of a whole people. If a person has truth on their side, and they are willing to speak up, then they can do anything: turning round the course of a lifetime, a government or a nation.