Jimmy Savile: Erasing the memory
- 1 November 2012
- From the section Magazine
An extraordinary effort has taken place over recent weeks to wipe out painful reminders of Jimmy Savile. But can you erase all trace of a reviled person?
Plaques have been taken down, buildings renamed, street signs removed, two charities closed.
A wall commemorating high-profile citizens in Leeds Civic Hall has had the inscription of Savile's name removed.
Officials are under immense pressure to take action.
Having said three weeks ago they would not change the name of Savile's Hall conference centre in Leeds, owner Royal Armouries International announced a change of mind this week at a cost of £50,000.
"Sir Jimmy's name and reputation are irrevocably tainted and we have to remove every trace," the managing director said.
The Royal Marines training centre at Lympstone will have its Savile Room renamed. A photo and nameplate have already gone. A newspaper talked of them having "destroyed all remnants of the TV star".
The BBC has removed from its Desert Island Discs database a 1985 episode in which Savile says he got into running dance halls in order to get girls.
While some of the erasures are said to be temporary, pending the outcome of the investigation into the welter of allegations of sexual abuse against him, it is hard to imagine the honours returning.
What is now happening to the memory of Savile has many parallels with the Penn State University sex abuse scandal. Jerry Sandusky was both a respected American football coach and also a prolific paedophile.
The scandal revolved around the university authorities' failure to act properly after Sandusky had been seen, in 2001, molesting a young boy in the showers.
The junior coach who witnessed the assault told his boss, legendary American football coach Joe Paterno, about the incident. Paterno passed it on to two of his superiors who in turn informed the president of the university.
But despite abuse having been witnessed, Sandusky - then retired - was allowed continued access to university premises. He went on to commit more abuse.
A subsequent inquiry by former FBI director Louis Freeh criticised four university leaders - including Paterno - saying they had "failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade".
After the scandal was uncovered, traces of Sandusky went. His face was removed from a mural. An ice cream flavour named after him disappeared.
But Paterno's legacy was also dismantled. The coach was fired, dying soon afterwards. Supporters of Paterno were outraged.
The treatment of Paterno went as far as to alter his record as a coach. The college American football authorities "vacated" all of Penn State's wins during the period the abuse scandal had been going on.
The Sandusky and Savile erasures might all seem like small gestures, but they can help the victims of abuse, says consultant clinical psychologist Jennifer Wild, of Kings College London.
"It is helpful for the victims. The tricky issue is why wasn't it done before? Why wasn't it taken seriously, especially for the victims who came forward. Some victims are going to feel too little too late."
But when the accused is dead, as Savile is, and therefore beyond the reach of the law, there is a sense that the wiping out of honours serves as some sort of consolation to those seeking justice.
"It is one of the substitutes," says Wild. "Another is the change in public opinion. The fact they are going to be believed."
But can you rewrite history? Can you say Paterno didn't win those games? Is there an ethical duty to preserve the truth of what happened, no matter how unpalatable it might be?
"If they were literally denying that he had won those titles that would be bizarre," says philosopher Roger Crisp, a fellow at the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. "But in taking names off the roll of honour what they are saying is that they don't want to honour him."
There is a distinction between distorting the truth in the hope of forgetting, and making a public statement that someone should not be honoured.
The physical vestiges of the careers of immoral people always present dilemmas.
While all traces of Savile may soon have disappeared from BBC buildings, every day staff walk past a sculpture created by an abuser.
Prospero and Ariel, which adorns BBC Broadcasting House in London, was carved by Eric Gill. The sculptor recorded in his diaries abusing his daughters.
Gill's Stations of the Cross is inside Westminster Cathedral. The Catholic authorities have resisted the idea of removing them because of Gill's status as an abuser.
There is a difference of course between honours - pictures of Savile in BBC buildings, places named after him - and the art of Gill, or even the music of Gary Glitter.
There was a reaction against Glitter's music in the wake of his conviction for child pornography and his subsequent imprisonment for child abuse in Vietnam. American sports stadiums that had played Rock and Roll Pt 2 reconsidered.
With music there is always the knowledge that publicly playing music, or buying music, gives money to the creator.
But it would be entirely consistent if a statue depicting Gill was removed from his hometown, while the same town had a retrospective of Gill's art, argues Crisp.
As bloggers have already noted, the Romans would have understood the Savile erasures as damnatio memoriae - the damnation of the memory. For the enemies of the Roman emperors Domitian and Geta, even their deaths were not enough.
Heads were smashed off statues, names were chiselled off tablets. The aim was to pretend they had never existed at all.
The process also happened in ancient Egypt after the death of the heretical monotheist pharaoh Akhenaten.
But the strange thing about damnatio memoriae is that the very knowledge of the concept rather indicates that it could never succeed. Whatever they did to memorials of Geta and Domitian, we still know they existed.
The same may apply to Savile. People will be able to see the spot where a plaque to him once rested. They may know that a path was once named after him.
Savile's name and the memory of what he did will not disappear.
But the efforts to eradicate honours may eventually offer a scintilla of solace to victims.
"I'm treating patients now and the whole Jimmy Savile case is a reminder. It is hard but it is going to be a reminder things are being done," says Wild.