Jimmy Savile — six decades of child abuse

Savile in 1972 when he had already been molesting children for at least a decade © Getty Images

Philanthropist, television personality, friend to princes and prime ministers: but behind Jimmy Savile’s image, new evidence reveals a chilling and prolonged regime of child sex abuse.

When Jimmy Savile died last October, the obituaries were full of praise. Papers nostalgically recalled his eccentric style – Cuban cigars, thick gold jewellery, gaudy tracksuits – and jaunty catchphrases. He was a ‘national treasure’, they said; ‘a real dear’.

Campaigners paid tribute to a great philanthropist who had contributed forty million pounds to charity. Top politicians and celebrities joined the chorus of praise, and even the Royal Family were ‘saddened’ by the news.

Savile had been an unmissable fixture in British life for half a century. Starting out as a nightclub owner and DJ, he became a household name after presenting the first ever episode of BBC’s music chart show Top of the Pops. By 1974 he was presenting his own TV programme, Jim’ll Fix It, in which young viewers called in to have their wishes fulfilled.

Away from television, Savile was an energetic fundraiser. He lavishly supported children’s hospitals, ran countless marathons and donated his advertising income to charitable causes. All this earned him a welcome and respect in the highest places: Savile was friendly with both Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher, the former UK Prime Minister.

Yet behind this benign, eccentric persona lay a terrible secret. Throughout his six decades at the heart of public life, Savile had systematically used his status to sexually abuse vulnerable teenage girls. And until now, all was hidden or ignored.

Then, two weeks ago, an ITV documentary shattered the silence. Five women independently came forward with disturbing tales of manipulation and abuse. Since then police have opened over 340 different lines of inquiry – Savile may be the most prolific paedophile in British criminal history.

How did he get away with it? Partly by picking victims whose complaints were unlikely to be heard; partly perhaps through bribery, blackmail and intimidation. But the uncomfortable truth is that Savile only partially concealed his crimes, gambling that his connections and reputation would protect him from punishment. Shockingly, it seems he was right.

Collective guilt

Fifty years of abuse, cry shocked onlookers, in public studios and hospitals! How can this possibly have been overlooked? It is not only Savile who is guilty, they say, but every individual who stayed silent while knowing or suspecting the truth.

That is easy to say now, respond the accused. But Savile seemed untouchable: a friend to the powerful, a patron of good causes and a household name. The establishment, the media and the public all unquestioningly accepted him as an icon and a star. A culture of celebrity worship gave Savile free rein, they say – and that culture is alive and well today.

You Decide

  1. Should the people who failed to report Jimmy Savile be held responsible for his crimes?
  2. Is it worth spending time and resources on prosecuting somebody who is already dead?


  1. Make a poster offering advice on what to do if you suspect that a child is being abused.
  2. Imagine you are the current Director General of the BBC, Jimmy Savile’s longtime employers. Write an apology, explaining how he was allowed to escape punishment and what you will do to ensure this never happens again.

Some People Say...

“Those who stand by while a crime is committed are as guilty as the criminals themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

What exactly is ‘sexual abuse’?
Any sexual contact without consent is abusive and totally illegal. Sexual activity between an adult and an under-16 is always abuse (with or without consent). And the adult is legally and morally responsible, whatever the circumstances.
What should I do if I know about a case of abuse?
If you know of any crime, it is your duty to report it. That is especially important in the case of child abuse, which is too often overlooked. Talk to an authority you trust – such as somebody at school or the police – and make sure something is done. If you need to talk about your own experiences or someone else’s, there are services available: the number for Childline is 0800 1111, and the NSPCC Helpline can be reached on 0800 800 5000.

Word Watch

Top of the Pops
First on BBC screens in 1964, this iconic TV show quickly became a symbol of the new ‘swinging’ youth culture. Upbeat, cheeky presenters presided over performances of the week’s hits to an energetic young audience. Shown weekly for over forty years it was finally cancelled in 2006.
Unlikely to be heard
Some of Savile’s victims relied on institutions like schools or hospitals his charitable activities financed. Others were apparently poor, troubled or parentless.
Bribery, blackmail and intimidation
It is not clear that Savile made direct threats, but insiders who knew of his crimes claim they felt ‘intimidated’ by his standing and demeanour. It has been suggested that he bribed police and hinted at stopping donations to a hospital if charges were pressed.
Only partially concealed
A Radio 1 DJ called Savile’s crimes an ‘open secret’. ‘Jimmy had a terrible reputation for being a groper and a molester,’ said presenter Bill Oddie. ‘It was common knowledge.’ Some BBC staff admit direct witnessing of paedophilic acts – yet only now share their knowledge with the police.

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