Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Dame Janet Smith BBC report into Jimmy Savile part two – ethos and culture

Dame Janet Smith not only sat in judgement on Jimmy Savile in her BBC report but she also condemned a whole way of life from our past. One quote that keeps reappearing in her report is ‘things were different in those days’ when discussing the post permissive, but pre feminist period, from the late 1960s to about the early 1980s. This post will try to identify what was so different about this earlier period compared to more recent years, and whether the Dame is right in deploring the outlook of society then, which she investigated as part of the background to her report.

It was part of her remit to ‘consider whether the culture and practices within the BBC during the years of Jimmy Savile’s employment enabled inappropriate sexual conduct to continue unchecked’. The BBC as a broadcaster came to realise that change was in the air, observing that ‘sexual behaviour which once would have been regarded as completely out of order is regarded as possibly acceptable, possibly normative, and the BBC is both trying to reflect this as a broadcaster and also is wrestling with some of the consequences of it’.

Many BBC staff and other witnesses reported that ‘attitudes towards sexual behaviour were more tolerant in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s than the attitudes we have today’. Dame Janet acknowledged that from the 1960s onwards ‘there was a rapid change in sexual and social mores, particularly among the younger generation’. Such changes were ascribed to the arrival of pop music and the loosening of censorship after the Lady Chatterley trial. Sex outside marriage became more widely acceptable, and there was a more general openness and frankness about sexual matters.

Dame Janet revealed that ‘at about this time, there was much discussion about whether there should be a reduction in the age at which a woman could consent to sexual intercourse.’ She continues ‘one argument advanced by those in favour of a reduction in the age of consent was that so many young people under the age of 16 were having sex; they were not only willing to do it but were not going to be stopped.’ She pointed out that the police could only prosecute those few cases where a complaint was made. Since the law was being widely disregarded, and had fallen out of step with social mores, it was argued by some that the age of consent should be reduced to 13. These were not arguments which convinced either legislators of the time, or Dame Janet, who proclaimed that ‘the law must be able to protect young people if they call for protection and should also seek to protect them from seduction by adults.’

Some commentators expressed the view ‘that people were not as aware of the significance of the age of consent as we are today, and that there was a much more relaxed approach to this question’. Dame Janet is correct when she acknowledges that during this period there was very little discussion about the ‘sexual abuse’ of young people, indeed the phrase had hardly been coined at that time. She concludes that the question that needs to be addressed is ‘whether, in the general population, the more relaxed attitudes towards heterosexual sex outside marriage included a more relaxed attitude towards underage sex and, in particular, a more relaxed attitude towards sex between an older man and a teenage girl.’

Witnesses revealed that attitudes towards the age of consent during this period had become very blurred, and that an increasing number of people regarded sex between a younger teenage girl and an older teenage boyfriend as acceptable, and that the important thing was to help her to avoid pregnancy. However, there appears to have been less social acceptance of sexual relations between a young teenage girl and a man in his thirties or older. Despite this there was little real sense of public outrage when such celebrity relationships were revealed in the press, perhaps due to the perception that such conduct was acceptable for celebrities. More generally the prevailing outlook, in the words of one witness, was that ‘the culture of the time was such that there was not a moral police attitude.’

Dame Janet does not buy into this permissive outlook. She condemned the viewpoint that such conduct, in the words of one witness, was ‘an unavoidable aspect of modern life and that there was nothing which could be done about it; the girls were willing and it was up to them.’ She believed that this attitude ‘was fostered or at any rate allowed to remain unchallenged because there were so few women in senior positions.’ She criticized the dominance of male management which she claimed created or permitted a ‘macho’ culture which allowed a casual attitude towards sex and what was acceptable behaviour, and also in attitudes towards women in the workplace.

Dame Janet discovered that sexual harassment was commonplace in many parts of the BBC, creating an atmosphere where women found it difficult to report complaints. There were very few female managers and generally the attitude of male managers appeared unconcerned about the issue. One female witness described the situation as ‘there were lots of wandering hands, comments about your body, chaps just felt it was perfectly fine to put their hand on your bottom, and other places.’ In response one former male manager accepted that there were ‘touchy-feely people who would always go and put their arm around a girl’ but said that challenging such behaviour did not feature high on his list of priorities. However, he thought that the young women were ‘strong enough to stand up for themselves and could give as good as they got, and probably would have done’. On the subject of sexual activity between an older male and a young girl in her mid-teens, she concluded that ‘beginning in the 1960s and continuing over the next two decades, there was a relaxation in our attitude towards such behaviour.’ Within the BBC the Dame thought that ‘there was a general perception that many girls of 14 or 15 were ready and willing to have sex with their pop idols. They hung around waiting for them, behaving in an excited way’. Staff took the view that if they wanted to have sex with celebrities it was a matter for them and no one else’s business, even though the activity was unlawful.

She contrasted this viewpoint with the current outlook whereby ‘we are much more conscious of the damage which can be done to a young person who enters into an unequal relationship with an older, powerful, charismatic man for whom the relationship is casual and unimportant. We are now far more disapproving of such relationships. To that extent I do accept that things were different in those days’. Dame Janet claims that ‘our knowledge and understanding of the need for child protection has changed radically. Until the late 1980s, the sexual abuse of children was barely acknowledged to exist; it is now widely discussed. Our understanding of the circumstances in which this can occur and the devastating effects it can have on victims has grown and continues to increase almost daily.’

Dame Janet’s conclusions on child protection were that during the period between the 1960s and the 1990s, this was a subject that was very low on the BBC’s radar, that no clear policies or procedures existed and such matters were generally not discussed. Managers were unaware of ‘the dangers of bringing together disc jockeys and young girls in circumstances in which assignations of a sexual nature might be made.’ She emphasised some factors which were general in society during this period which contributed to this outlook. These were a failure to see sexual abuse of the young as a significant major problem, and to recognise the need to protect young people around the age of consent from exploitation by older men, underpinned by the prevailing outlook that, once a girl had reached the age of 16, anything went. Dame Janet added that there was a failure to recognise the seriousness of the harm which could be done to young people who might (albeit lawfully and willingly) be drawn into casual sexual contact with older men who were abusing the power given to them by their age or position.

Dame Janet summarises this situation in the phrase ‘moral danger’, defined as the risk to which young teenage girls might be exposed as the result of finding themselves in the company of older men and ‘liable to be involved in sexual conduct which might be unlawful on account of their youth or might be inappropriate and emotionally damaging to them on account of their lack of maturity.’

Dame Janet appears to combine the Victorian social purity of Josephine Butler, the anti permissiveness of Mary Whitehouse, and the strident feminist agenda of Harriet Harman. Her conclusions encapsulate the convergence between the feminist agitation over ‘rape culture’ and children’s charities fear mongering over ‘child sexual abuse’. The former has expanded to include any disapproved physical or verbal interaction between men and women, and the definition of the latter has been widened to include any social activity by men with females still in their teens. Dame Janet implicitly promotes the view that it is a legitimate role of the law, and those in positions of authority, to police in minute detail the interpersonal relations between those of the opposite sex in general and teenagers in particular.

As Dame Janet has recorded teenagers in the 1960s and 1970s were keen to escape the repressive and hard line sexual straightjacket which pre-permissive society had imposed on their parents and grandparents. Neither teenagers themselves, nor the BBC management responsible for organising Top of the Pops, would have welcomed the kind of intrusive surveillance which Dame Janet appears to be advocating under the pretext of child protection. Young people of that period would have been aghast in disbelief that the clock would again be turned back to an oppressive chaperoning regime that undermines young persons self reliance and personal autonomy, under the disguise of protecting the vulnerable. We really have to trust teenagers on the management of their personal relationships, and if they make mistakes as they surely will, then they will undoubtedly learn from the experience, and not allow it to blight the rest of their life which is what is happening under the therapy culture of today promoted by the likes of Dame Janet.

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