So, is philanthropy the last refuge of the scoundrel?
When you have things to conceal – a criminal past, a ruthlessly accumulated fortune, a predilection for underage girls, or just a hankering to be better thought of than you deserve – what works better than giving to charity? Give munificently and ostentatiously – for there’s no advantage in hiding your light under the same bushel you hide your dirty secret – and a knighthood will surely come your way, to say nothing of the devotion of your beneficiaries, and therefrom, if you’re smart, ample opportunity to pursue your secret predilections even further. Crime, charity, crime: call it the perpetual motion of the immoralist.
It’s not my intention to be cynical. The charitable impulse is honourable and more than ever necessary in these cruel times; we cannot afford it to be discredited by dubious motives – whether of the criminal or simply the inadequate sort. (I’m thinking of Kitty’s friend Varenka in Anna Karenina who devotes herself to good works because she can’t otherwise find a centre to her life.)
My father knew Jimmy Savile a little and spoke with admiration of the charity work he saw him do at close quarters. “But the man’s a creepy nincompoop,” I used to say. “He has the dead face of a thug, makes ridiculous noises, and aspires to the condition of a slow-to-develop infant. You’d have had me adopted had I behaved like that when I was three.” “As usual you’re quick to make judgements about people you don’t know,” my father replied with justice, for I was at university and dropped judgements the way an autumn tree drops leaves. “You should see him with disabled kids. You should see the pleasure he brings them.”
My father was a taxi driver in Manchester when he met Jimmy Savile. For some reason Savile liked the company of taxi drivers and often joined them in their hut at Piccadilly Station. I attach no sexual significance to this, not least because I can’t, for the life of me, see any. It’s hard to imagine how you’d prey on the innocence of a Manchester taxi driver. But you never know. Perhaps he needed their discretion. Or occasionally craved the conversation of grown-ups.
He gave his time freely, anyway, to the annual Manchester taxi drivers’ convoy of disabled children to Blackpool, an event which my father helped to organise, chivvying other drivers and spending weeks decorating his own cab with toys and balloons. It doesn’t fall to everybody to be good with disabled children on an outing such as this. At the behest of my father, I tried once and failed. But he was excellent at it, naturally kind and jolly, not distressed into uselessness as I had been, and Jimmy Savile, he assured me, was even better. That being the case, one has to take one’s hat off to him. Behaving as though you’re a child yourself has its uses.
That I know of, my father never had to square Jimmy Savile’s charitable work with his predatiousness. Certainly he never said anything to suggest he was aware of it, as it’s becoming more evident by the day that many at the BBC were. Mark Thompson has unwisely said he had never heard a word, which confirms one’s suspicions that he didn’t have a clue about much, including what was going on in the institution he ran. But how other people at the BBC who did have a clue managed to arrange their suspicions into complaisance is a question we are bound to ask.
Ditto tabloid journalists who have been half inclined to use the Savile revelations as a reminder to Leveson of the importance of exposing public figures, but who should be reminded in turn of their failure to expose this public figure when no one was stopping them from doing so. No one except Savile himself, that is. It’s said he blackmailed any paper about to unmask him with the threat of putting an end to his giving, but it’s difficult to imagine a threat like that shutting any decent journalist up. Indeed, the threat itself would only have made the story juicier. That it might have silenced some of the staff of the homes, hospitals and special schools he supported, and from which he is said to have drawn a plentiful supply of victims, is easier to understand if not to forgive. You need a hard nose to survive as a charity.
So what sense are we to make of the resounding silence? Cowardice, was it? A complicit contempt for the victims? An inane regard for celebrity? Or could it have been that those who knew, or half-knew, were actually making a philosophical decision – that the good he did outweighed the bad? They wouldn’t have been the first to go down that route. Many honourable and intelligent people – intellectuals in particular – will squint at evil if it serves an end to which their ideologies commit them.
Take the late Eric Hobsbawm who held on to his belief in the Communist system long after most other rational men had dumped it in disillusionment and shame. He saw the amelioration of humanity as the ultimate goal, no matter how many millions perished to achieve it. By this reasoning the greater good must always excuse the lesser evil, from which it follows that it’s better to keep a special school going for the many than to allow it to close to protect a few. A preference which lets not only Stalin and Savile off the hook, but also those who turned a blind eye to them.
Savile was a cunning, brutal nincompoop scraping the barrel of a bankrupt popular culture, Hobsbawm a brilliant, subtle and courteous historian, an ornament to scholarship; but they complement each other grotesquely. In Savile we see the good that wicked men can do; in Hobsbawm the wickedness that good men can think.