As more details emerge about Jimmy Savile’s behaviour as a sexual predator, what is becoming clear is that his status as a celebrity helped to protect him. The question most people have asked, as the scale of his crimes is becoming known, is how was he able to get away with it for so long? The question though is misplaced. Some people seek to answer it by explaining his crimes by alleging that politicians or other power powerful people and organisations protected him. In other words, he used his status and identity as a celebrity to associate with the powerful and thereby create an impression that he was protected. However, the deeper, more problematic question, that has not been asked, is: How could he not get away with it? Who was going to stop him?
Jimmy Savile got away with it because he was a celebrity who took full advantage of the cult and culture of celebrity. The culture of celebrity means that a person is measured by the status given to them by audiences and by extension public opinion. The cult of celebrity means the intense devotion or support that people have for celebrity, any celebrity, so long as they are “famous”. The cult and culture combine in a way that defines people by what they are, a celebrity, and not who they are, as a (im)moral or (bad) good person. The culture of celebrity is one in which we see children as young as 4 years old being groomed for talent and beauty contests. We see the “cattle call” of young applicants vying to be on any number of “talent” or “reality” shows in the hopes of being “famous” or a “celebrity”. The entertainment industry benefits from their failure and their success all the while fuelling the cult and culture of celebrity. In effect, our infatuation, our addiction, to the celebrity culture of entertainment enabled Jimmy Savile. In a culture of celebrity, the goal is to have everything that appears to come with being a celebrity. In particular, there is a belief that a celebrity should, and will, receive preferential treatment because of what they seem to be in the public’s mind. The celebrity is not celebrated for their intrinsic worth or goodness as a person, they are celebrated for what they seem to be or the false image that has been created about them within the public imagination. As a society, our culture habituates us to accept the appearance as the reality. When the appearance, the cult of celebrity, dominates the person, it changes our understanding of the human person and therein what is acceptable about the human person.
Celebrity as commodity
When celebrity becomes the measure of a person’s worth, the person, as a person, becomes a commodity. Their appearance becomes the reality and not the transcendent essence that makes the person as a person. We, the entertainment consumer, only value the person as a celebrity, as a commodity. We want the appearance to be the reality. We do not seek out the person, as a person, in all their flaws in large part because celebrities are ordinary people without any particular grace or insight into life. Most “reality” celebrity shows fade after a few seasons because there is nothing intrinsically interesting about them except for their talent that makes them celebrity. Even reality shows that turn relatively ordinary people into celebrities, simply because they act as celebrities, fade for the same reason. The participants have no other talent than their status as a celebrity.
How does this explain Jimmy Savile?
The entertainment system protected and rewarded Jimmy Savile. In return, he provided an “entertainment” commodity for the company and the public. His value was as a commodity and not because of his intrinsic worth as a moral or “good” person. His value to the organisations was in what he was not his intrinsic worth for who he was as a person. So long as he was a valuable asset to the organisation, he would be tolerated and supported. He could rely on the organisation that created and supported his celebrity status to defend his status. At the same time, anyone challenging that celebrity status would attract more attention as well as more resistance. Even if the celebrity status did not deter someone with a complaint, the organisation would have the resources to defend his status as a celebrity with lawyers or settlement payments. In this situation, celebrity status provides an intrinsic protective barrier that works within the organisational and societal context.
Appearance shapes our reality by shaping our public opinion
His celebrity status, the power of his celebrity created, promoted, and defended by the BBC, enabled him to commit his crimes. Machiavelli best explains how this could occur.
…[M]en judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them;
Instead of the majesty of the state, Savile was using the BBC as a way to promote and nurture his appearance. Thus, we see that the appearance for the public was not the same as it was for those who “really know what you are”, the people on the inside who claim to have witnessed his behaviour. Then again, one only has to watch the Top of the Pops video where he fondles the 14yr old Coleen Nolan to see where the appearance became a glimpse of the unseen. The poets (today’s entertainers are like poets) who have the power of a corporation to defend them and promote them can shape images to influence what people believe. Some poets can do this to support the public good and others, like Savile, will use this power for their own corrupt purposes. The modern era’s cult and culture warps society away from an ordering that nourishes and sustains the common good. Yet, when we see the benefits that celebrity appears to confer, it is understandable why people want to become celebrities.
Preferential treatment for celebrities distorts justice as the common good
The pursuit of celebrity, though, is based on a flawed understanding of what it means to be human and a flawed understanding of justice within the society. Instead of a human person valued for their intrinsic worth as a human person or their ability to live in accordance with a society’s highest ideals, the cult and culture of celebrity values them for their status, which reflects the public’s appetite for entertainment. The cult and culture of celebrity undermine justice because it requires people to be treated unequally and unfairly. If you are a celebrity, you receive unequal or preferential treatment. If justice is based on a fundamental premise of equality, or at least an inequality in accordance with reason, then the cult and culture of celebrity corrupt it because it is not premised upon equality. Moreover, any inequality required is not based on reason, in the sense that it accords with a reasonable understanding of the world. For example, it would be just for taller people to get longer beds. They would not get the same bed as a smaller person. In that sense, the “inequality” accords with reason. In other words, it is just that a tall person has a long bed and a short person has a short bed.
What is the entertainment industry’s commodity?
The flawed understanding of the human person is best expressed by how the entertainment industry, turns the human person into a commodity. As a celebrity, they are trafficked for their status and this becomes the acceptable face of the flesh trade. The entertainment business literally traffics in flesh, physically and on the screen. The corporation that nurtured Jimmy Savile as a “talent” saw him as a commodity that they could market and sell. Instead of seeing the person, they were more interested in his celebrity status. They were too busy trafficking in his flesh, in his person, to investigate the allegations. In that regard, the person is not what is important but what they represent, economically and organisationally, becomes the most important factor. The human person is without dignity within the cult and culture of celebrity. To put it directly, there is no behaviour so abhorrent that it cannot attract someone or some organisation to “celebrate it and thereby profit from it. Instead of placing, the human person within a society or familial context, the cult and culture of celebrity makes the person a means to an end. They are commodities, to be marketed, bought, and sold for our entertainment.
What you watch repeatedly shapes your soul?
So if you watch Britain’s Got Talent or the X Factor or Jersey Shore or Made in Chelsea consider whether your entertainment supports and enhances the cult and culture of celebrity that enabled Jimmy Savile. We may find those programmes amusing and even entertaining, which tells us as much about the “entertainment” as it does about what our society considers worthy of our time.. Some may say as long as they are of the age of consent, then the behaviour is acceptable. Yet, we see repeatedly that the path to celebrity begins with child beauty and talent contests. The quest is to find the next “celebrity” or become the next “celebrity”. Those who profit from that flesh trade are happy to oblige. The questions we have to ask ourselves as a society are why we consume such entertainment and what does it tell us about society when the highest ambition is to become a celebrity? Our answers will help us to realize we have asked the wrong questions about Jimmy Savile. We should not be asking how Jimmy Savile got away with it. Instead, we should be asking how he could not get away with it because who was going to stop him. Who would be prepared fight against the appearance and thereby fight public opinion (the opinion of the many) especially when the person in question was employed by a powerful organisation? We would all like to say we would speak up today if such circumstances were repeated today. We have to face the excruciating and dangerous question that no one wants to ask, let alone answer: Is it happening today? Where are we allowing ourselves to defer to the cult and culture of celebrity and the public’s belief in appearance?
The next time you turn on the television ask yourself; am I watching the next Jimmy Savile?
- Savile ‘banned from children’s home for abuse’ (yorkshirepost.co.uk)
- Jimmy Savile – Your letter was only the start of it [Mike "Magic" Segall] (ecademy.com)
- Clegg: Savile case represents ‘dark side’ of celebrity culture (itv.com)