How did we allow a prominent figure like Jimmy Savile to act so carelessly without consequences during his career? Catherine Murnane considers the excessively forgiving attitude that the public shows towards its heroes
How did we get here? How did society blindly award Jimmy Savile with knighthood, an OBE and his paternal position in the British media? How did the one of the most idolised figures in the entertainment industry become one of the UK’s most prolific abusers within the space of a mere month? For over 48 years more than 300 victims suffered in silence, unable to bring their trauma into the media spotlight, unwilling to arouse concerns about a figure nobody else dared curse.
The Jimmy Savile story, paired with others, demonstrates the blind adoration we show towards prominent public figures. Throughout the 1980s, Savile was granted access to the nurse’s accommodation building at Leeds General Infirmary. On the mornings that he decided to bring young, unsupervised girls with him, nobody raised a voice or pointed a finger, not even after Savile passed away. A 60 year old male was allowed to regularly take ill children, whom he had no relation to, from a controlled hospital environment and abuse them. If it had been anyone but Jimmy Savile, public outcry and distasteful tabloid headlines would have instantly ensued, with witnesses eager to bring justice to the story. But we couldn’t shun Savile. He was a public hero. Nobody wanted to undermine him.
This isn’t the first time in recent news that this protective shield of appreciation has been granted to public figures. The prominent role of the Catholic Church in Ireland ensured its establishment as an authority that nobody sought to question. From the 1930s up until the media revelation of the 1990s, the Irish state trusted the Church to provide for those who needed assistance. Over 35,000 children and teenagers who were orphans, petty thieves or unmarried mothers were sent to schools, reformatories and hostels that were fully run by the Catholic Church. During these 70 years, Catholic Ireland did not dare question its religion. It was only when we began to become a more multi-religious nation that the walls of protection began to fall down. It took a media outcry for the Church to stop moving priests between dioceses to avoid the revelation of these sins and finally acknowledge them. And it wasn’t until 2009, almost 80 years since the first claim of abuse, that the Murphy Report finally acknowledged 320 complaints made against 46 priests.
How did they gather the information? Not only did victims come forward, but droves of staff members and the public who had witnessed suspicious behaviour. Though they had known all along, they would have never spoken out against the Church as individuals. It was only when other prominent establishments within the media and the state confronted them that they could forgive themselves for speaking up.
But even when the truth about our prominent figures emerges and the facts become clear and unarguable, Irish people still find ways and means to defend those in the public eye. The response made by many Irish people to the Sean Quinn saga is a disturbing example of this. Quinn went from being Forbes 164th richest man on earth to bankrupt in a flash, bringing national banks and the nation down with him.
Using illegal mechanisms, Quinn took over 28% of Anglo Irish Bank in 2007. When he was asked to finally cough up the money, his throat was bone dry. He used fraudulent and bizarre attempts to place assets abroad on exotic islands where the Irish victims of a grey economic climate could not reach it. The Courts have deemed his actions illegal. He’s been sent to jail. Yet he still accumulates hundreds of supporters across our island.
In the eyes of many, the Mighty Quinn lives on. In August. we saw crowds of supporters gather in his home county of Fermanagh, advocating the forgiveness of a local icon. That day supporters praised Sean Quinn for the employment and opportunities he had brought to the area, his contribution to local causes and his never-ending commitment to his heritage and roots. He is a paternal figure to these people; one whom they feel has earned their unconditional adoration.
Perhaps the issue here is that people need heroes. Perhaps we are too proud to accept that we may have misjudged a character, that the person who solved our problems for us now causes them. The concept is an understandable one when we consider the recent revelation of Lance Armstrong’s drug use throughout his career. For seven years he was the epicentre of the Tour de France, an athlete that inspired and motivated the talent of others. To acknowledge that the figure you strived to become was a fraud and a liar would make you question your interest in the sport, your desire to cycle at a competitive level. Because the person you admired is now the enemy of sporting principles.
It would be much easier to ignore that fact and the stories you hear in the paper and focus on the other aspects of his character that you can still argue to be intact. The same applies for the other scandals mentioned above. At one point we looked to these figures for relief, faith or guidance. If we don’t have them, who can we turn to instead? And if that question can’t be answered, then we really do have a pressing issue to consider.