No more heroes anymore

You should never meet your heroes, there is only one possible outcome. At best you will be disappointed they seem indifferent to your adulation; at worst they will turn out to be shorter, balder or scruffier than you expected, have bad breath or be downright rude.

Fortunately I haven’t met any of mine, but I have still had my illusions shattered on finding out that people I once admired and looked up to have, inevitably, had feet of clay.  A hero who has triumphed, seemingly, against the odds and done so much for those less fortunate must be a good and noble person, right?

Well, no, as it turns out.  And I am not talking about Jimmy Savile but Lance Armstrong, the American cycling legend and cancer survivor.  In a somewhat less gruesome parallel to the Savile revelations, Armstrong has been exposed as a serial drugs cheat and stripped of his seven Tour de France titles a year after he retired. 

Just like Savile, Armstrong was an impressive figure who made himself both beloved and untouchable, raising money for cancer research and giving a voice to cancer victims.  Just like Savile, rumours circulated about his wrongdoing for years, but few were prepared to put their head above the parapet and those who did were smeared and ridiculed.

Discovering that people who do apparently good things may not be all, or even a little bit, good feels a bit like that first realisation you have as a child that the world is not all fun and fairy dust.  It is also disconcerting to realise you’ve been duped, hoodwinked and had the wool well and truly pulled over your eyes.

Luckily for me, that’s all it is.  And lucky that even though I wrote several times asking Jim to ‘fix it’, he never did.  Despite this, I found him a bit creepy even then, but on seeing clips of his programmes now, I am shocked anyone could ever have thought his behaviour was normal.

These two scandals should put a serious check on our obsession with celebrity, in particular the idea that achieving such lofty heights marks someone out as worthy of admiration.  Both Savile and Armstrong were protected by a ‘celebrity appeasement culture’, which not only allowed them to hide in plain sight but ensured it would always be their word that was believed.

This isn’t the only lesson.  It would be difficult to find a more potent illustration of the culture that allowed Savile to abuse and continue abusing children than the phrase ‘just the women’, used by Newsnight editor Peter Rippon to suggest the programme’s claims about the star were not robust enough.  

‘Just the women’.  There you have it in a nutshell.  The only evidence against Savile was the testimony of ‘just the women’. 

To be fair to Rippon, he probably meant ‘just the victims’, since boys were also abused.  It’s also reasonable to assume that, over the years, others expressed similar sentiments, because exposing Savile would damage his immense fundraising capacity.  It seems we have been too ready to dismiss victims of abuse as fantasists or, worse, ‘collateral damage’.

In some ways even more appalling than that Savile committed these crimes, sadly there will always be paedophiles in our midst, is that he was allowed to get away with it.  It wasn’t just his victims who were afraid to speak up, but those who witnessed the abuse and who were also afraid of the comeback.

The government needs seriously to consider introducing a law on mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse.  It seems unbelievable that we have no requirement for organisations responsible for caring for children to report allegations or incidents of abuse.

Such a law would be more effective at preventing abuse and catching abusers than CRB (Criminal Records Bureau) checks, which only set alarm bells ringing if someone already has a conviction.  On the other hand, had any witnesses to the abuse been obliged to report it, the opportunities so alarmingly missed to catch Savile earlier would surely have been realised.

It is arguable, however, that what protected Savile for so long are our outdated draconian libel laws.  One journalist, Paul Connew, has told how as editor of the Sunday Mirror in 1994, he had ‘credible’ evidence from two women who claimed Savile had abused them at a children’s home.  Although he was ‘totally and utterly convinced’ they were telling the truth, the paper’s lawyers decided they couldn’t risk publication and the substantial costs and damages of losing a libel case.

While the government is bringing in a new Defamation Bill to address concerns that British courts have a chilling effect on free speech, campaigners fear it won’t go far enough.  The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has joined campaigners in calling for a public interest defence to protect writers who make inaccurate claims in good faith.

This is the flip side of the Leveson inquiry into the press.  The tragic irony of the phone hacking scandal is that while journalists were focused on exposing uninteresting and unimportant tittle tattle about some minor and some not so minor celebrities, they missed, or avoided, the really big scandal under their noses.

It will take a fine balancing act to ensure that any measures to prevent the press from descending into the gutter again, as they did when they hacked the phones of Milly Dowler, Sara Payne and victims of the 7/7 London bombings, don’t curtail journalists’ ability to shed light on the lives of public figures. 

Even if all this comes to pass, and that is by no means certain given that so far all we have seen is a lot of navel gazing by the BBC and tasteless schadenfreude from its critics, it will probably be of little comfort to those who have suffered in silence for anything up to 50 years.  It is hard to imagine a more miserable burden than having first-hand knowledge that someone everyone else holds up as a hero is anything but.

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