A friend from Germany couldn’t resist ringing me up, in the wake of the latest eighty-something ex-TV presenter to be dragged before the courts for sexual misdemeanours long ago: “So, we have our old concentration camp guards and you have doddery broadcasters – but it does look much the same on the front pages, doesn’t it?”
I was a bit startled by this analogy between the former It’s a Knockout presenter Stuart Hall – who last week admitted 14 counts of sexual assaults, including one of a 9 year-old girl – and the men involved in the extermination of the Jews of central Europe. But to be fair to my friend, this was not an attempt to rank Hall (and indeed the late Sir Jimmy Savile) as no better or no worse than mass murderers. It was more an observation that when men are in their dotage they look utterly harmless, so there is a kind of disconnect between their current appearance and the nature of their crimes, committed when in the prime of life. And behind that there is also the thought, frequently expressed by those disgusted by judicial severity: what is the point of putting these shambling old men behind bars?
Weirdly, this attitude seems much more prevalent in respect of alleged war criminals than in those of superannuated TV stars charged with sexual assaults. For example, when the Sun newspaper, in conjunction with the Simon Wiesenthal Center, last year tracked down a fugitive 97 year old who had been found guilty in absentia of war crimes in connection with the transfer of Jews to Auschwitz, one commentator from a reputable English university observed that “to many it may seem futile to imprison [him]… Who’s to say he even remembers every injustice he committed? He may not even be sane, being so advanced in years.”
And though internet forums are not a scientific reflection of overall opinion, it is worth noting that one on this topic held by Debate.org had almost a third of respondents answering the question “Should Nazi war criminals continued to be prosecuted?” with a straightforward ‘No’.
I suspect that a similar question along the lines of “Should former BBC presenters continue to be prosecuted for alleged sexual offences committed in the 1960s and 1970s?” would gain an almost universal ‘Yes’ on such websites. While I would be in that overwhelming majority, it is interesting to speculate on why ex-broadcasters accused of sexually molesting minors are seen as more worthy of judicial punishment than those who individually – and often with sadistic delight – brutalised and murdered thousands of women.
One reason is parochial: the Holocaust did not take place in this country. And despite what many think, Britain did not fight a war against the Nazi regime to save the Jews: it was about purely national interests – to prevent Europe from coming under domination by a militarized Germany.
A second reason is that to many people nowadays the war must feel like ancient history. But the visceral hatreds that contributed to the popularity of the Nazis are far from extinguished. In Budapest last weekend the far-right Jobbik party, which won 17 per cent of the vote in Hungary’s most recent elections, held an anti-Jewish rally: this in a country where little more than seventy years ago half a million Jews had been exported and exterminated. And, coincidentally, it was in Budapest that the Sun had tracked down the surprisingly sprightly 97 year-old war criminal Ladislaus Csizsik-Csatary.
There is also the fact that sexual offences against children have become seen as the greatest of all crimes – worse than murder. Some of this is perverse, in that the prevailing culture is one of increasingly premature sexual activity – whether encouraged through the internet, or the breakdown of an old moral order founded on inhibition, take your pick: much of the hysteria about paedophilia in modern Britain is like Caliban recoiling in horror at his own reflection.
Yet another reason for the peculiar intensity of the fury at the sexual abusers in TV-land is, precisely, because they were TV stars. The public believe that they knew these people – that is the illusion of the box in the corner of the living room – and therefore feel personally betrayed. This was encapsulated by the writer Peter Stanford, who commented almost elegiacally last week: “I grew up with Stuart Hall. As well as It’s a Knockout, he was the daily anchor on the evening news bulletins from BBC Manchester. He was in our lounge in Birkenhead so much… that he almost felt like one of the family. ‘Our Stuart’ was a role model. I can even recall a group of us hurrying along, aged 13 or 14, to the Oval Sports Centre in Bebington after an It’s a Knockout casting was announced in the Wirral Globe, all our studied efforts to appear coolly indifferent momentarily abandoned, such was the thrill of being within 50 yards of him.” Of course, many of those adoring 13 and 14 years olds would have been female and… well, we now know what happened next.
There has been a certain amount of self-exculpation by those who worked with the sexually predatory Hall – along the lines of: of course we knew about all those girls he entertained in his private office next to the studio in Manchester, but we never dreamed for a second that any of them were under-age. Perhaps not; but I doubt that it would have made any difference if they had known.
And if you are tempted to say that everything is different nowadays, I refer you to the inquiry last year into the grooming and abuse of girls in Rochdale care-homes. One of those girls told the inquiry “My own dad rang social services… but they had not done anything. Basically they told my Mum and Dad that I was a prostitute and it was a lifestyle choice.”
The point is, these things still happen. Doddery sexual predators from the BBC’s golden age and still more ancient Jew-killers should be put on trial, not just for what they did but also because they can’t be dismissed as throwbacks to a different world. The same world still exists.
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