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What the removal of a headstone for Sir Jimmy Savile says about our justice system and his family

An already very grim story just took a turn for the worse. But any civilised society needs to emphasise justice over revenge, so let the BBC and police do their work

The early morning news that the family of Sir Jimmy Savile has asked for the headstone on his grave to be removed – out of “respect to public opinion” – is distressing, sad, and possibly unnecessary.

As we report this morning, Savile’s family made the decision to ensure the “dignity and sanctity” of Woodlands Cemetery near Scarborough. In other words, they have done this as a preventative measure. As yet we don’t know that vandals have defaced the gravestone; but fear of it possibly happening, and the trauma that would cause, has led the family to act in precaution.

Apparently the headstone, worth around £4,000, was ripped out of the earth by undertakers who said it will be “broken up, placed in a skip, and used as landfill”, after a two-hour operation.

What a terrible addition to this already grim story. The idea of vandals defacing Savile’s gravestone is repulsive, because such criminal damage isn’t going to help the alleged victims now. As I wrote a little while ago in relation to Anders Breivik, retribution is of two kinds: first, social, also known as justice; and second, individual, also known as revenge. The mark of a civilised society is that it promotes the messy frustrations and delays of the former over the false consolation of the latter.

To deface Jimmy Savile’s headstone would be an act of revenge when what is urgently required is justice. By having it removed overnight, the family of Jimmy Savile have shown how much swifter and easier to deliver is the former. It is for the BBC, the police, and probably the law courts to see that justice is served – but they, alas, cannot act at the same speed. That is the nature of modern law, and a good thing too.

Last night’s episode proves too how the families of criminals, alleged and otherwise, are made to suffer for the sins of their relations.