This was posted on the Works for Freedom website in October 2012 which is sadly no more. I’ve just updated the links etc.
What more can be said about the case of Jimmy Savile or that which will not be overtaken by events in this ever-expanding case and cause for concern? As a lecturer in crime and media I often set my students a theoretical essay in which I ask them if concerns about paedophilia amount to a ‘moral panic’. I expect them to set out the classic morphology of a ‘moral panic’ derived from Stan Cohen’s work and assess whether frequent media frenzies amount to ‘moral panics’. The best also consider the many theoretical and popular linguistic additions to the concept (even the press use the phrase) and whether those are helpful. The very best might remember me pointing them in the direction of the work of feminists, for instance Jenny Kitzinger.
She was writing, in the late ‘90s, about the media’s ‘discovery’ of paedophilia in the mid ‘80s by press and current affairs programmes and also in serials and soaps. She argues against reducing, or dismissing (see this from Spiked for instance now), this all as a media frenzy and sees it as other than or more than a ‘moral panic’. I’m with her on much of this and want hark back to her, and other’s (see Cowburn and Dominelli for instance), idea of ‘stranger danger’ and the media’s part in its construction. But first some history/context.
Music Journalist Charles Shaar Murray recalls how he was a contributor/editor of the School Kid’s Oz. I wasn't but I wish now I was. I was 17 when the editors put out a call for 15-18 years olds to edit/write Oz 28, publication of which lead to the conviction of the adult editors for obscenity. As a regular reader it crossed my mind to volunteer.
As a student at the school which Mick Jagger had left only 5 years before London and the ‘swinging sixties’ seemed very near yet out of reach. The zeitgeist that reached me through the underground press (and the condemnation of the traditional media) strongly suggested that liberation meant liberation for women, black people, gays and formerly condemned minorities. Oh, and it was going to bring about the revolution too (my dumb hippy shame)! So I was aware of the existence of PIE (Paedophile Information Exchange) which was not necessarily embraced in the counter-culture but not condemned as it would be today. At the time PIE rode alongside the growing gay liberation movement and other radical movements, so perhaps some feared to condemn them and PIE did have a real point (if hardly neutral) in campaigning about the age of consent which was then 21 for male homosex.
As my imagined sex life had begun before secondary school I too thought the age of consent should be dropped; but it was the fact that Dartford Grammar was single sex that most hampered my desires. So leaving aside the atmosphere of Radio 1 that some have mentioned as context for Savile’s offences I do recall a wider ‘loosening’. That atmosphere is now roundly condemned here (comment 12). It seems clear now, but might have been guessed at from emerging feminist thinking, that the main beneficiaries would be older men and not me.
Like many crimes that attract media interest Savile’s case is used not only to talk about the crimes (with old media often shying away from the details yet new media already attracting jokes in bad taste) but also wider concerns and activities (eg BBC bashing). But are these concerns a delayed or retrospective ‘moral panic’?
In these matters I look not only for the moralising and panic which we have in excess but also the demonised ‘other’ and here instead of the generalised bogey man of the ‘paedophile’ we have the figure of Jimmy Savile. But also I look for the amplification, the media condemnation which worsens the situation. The Daily Sketch taunts of ‘retarded vain young hot-blooded paycocks’ that drives the purchase of scooters, motor-bikes, italian suits and leather jackets and ensures the return match. So not a moral panic for me. Only a bold punk band seeking instant demonisation/fame might now call themselves The Jimmy Savile’s. I see no-one signing up to that monstered regiment of paedophiles.
And back to Kitzinger, how do we now see the issue of stranger danger? Will any amplification occur in respect of an expansion of our appreciation real and ongoing dangers to children. Where do celebrities sit in the family/stranger continuum? I know many I’d be happy to keep out of my living room. Luckily, unlike Mary Whitehouse my TV comes with a channel changer.
Sadly for the moment the focus will be on the past and the other hoopla. Sadly too in the future ‘solutions’ will be found which promise much but merely add repression and bureaucracy without any added safety. Savile may have persuaded himself these young women and girls were ‘groupies’ but the real groupies were those who fawned over his celebrity status and the cachet he could bring them or their organisations.
And, to return to my hippy roots, we need to be less respectful and encourage children to speak out. As a boy climbing trees on Clapham Common in the late 50s I disrespectfully told any older man who approached to ‘fuck off’.