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November 23, 2012

Abusers, Victims, and Historical Memory

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The late Jimmy Savile's episode of Desert Island Discs went out on BBC Radio 4 on 30 March 1985. Desert Island Discs has been running weekly (with a few breaks) since 1942. The BBC has uploaded recordings of more than 1,450 episodes to its website. Jimmy Savile's was one of these, but no longer. About six weeks ago, the BBC took it down.

This was one of a number of steps taken by the BBC and others to remove Jimmy Savile's name from public prominence since his exposure as a prolific abuser of young women and children. All over the country plaques and memorials have been taken down. Organizations bearing his name have been retitled or disbanded. The BBC will no longer repeat Savile's shows, from Top of the Pops to Jim'll Fix It.

To my surprise I found myself on this morning's BBC Radio 4 Today Programme in a three way conversation with Dr Jennifer Wild of Kings College London and Justin Webb, the presenter. The starting point was the parallel with what once happened to politically disgraced people under communist rule.

First, they were accused and found guilty of monstrous crimes, often on fabricated evidence and forced confessions (confusingly, however, among them were a few real monsters who were as bloodsoaked as their executioners). Then, their names were eliminated from public discourse; they could never be mentioned again, except as hateful enemies. Their pictures were taken down. Photographs of important events that could not be retaken without the offender were doctored (today we'd say they were photoshopped) to replace the offender's image with another person or a neutral background. There are some nice examples here on Wikipedia. Towns or squares named after them were renamed. Their writings were removed from public libraries and confined to the spetskhran, the special storeroom, accessible only to investigators licensed and approved by the ruling party. It became dangerous for private collectors to keep the books the offenders wrote or articles that reported their views; you were supposed to declare your holdings and turn them in to the authorities, risking questions about why you kept them in the first place. They became what George Orwell later called "unpersons": there was no evidence they had ever existed, except when the authorities brought their names up to condemn them further.

The case of Jimmy Savile presents important differences. Savile's reputation was destroyed by the courageous witness of his many victims, not to suit the convenience of a Great Leader. It seems entirely proper that, when someone was honoured and turns out to have been unworthy of it, we should take the honour away. Moreover, we live not under a totalitarian state but in a free society that respects the private realm. If you have the abuser's image on a DVD or an old tape casette at home, it's your property and no one can confiscate it or order you to destroy it.

The reason I was asked onto the Today Programme, I think, was to argue that it is a further step to delete the historical record. The BBC has chosen to archive its sound recordings for the public. To go back and remove an item because we no longer approve of the person it featured is to create a blank page in history. One of the features of the communist police state was to impose unequal access to historical records. Official historians, who had proved their political loyalty, were allowed privileged access to the "special storeroom." The public could not be trusted, and was kept out. It makes me uneasy to see the BBC recreate this in our own country.

Jennifer Wild (whom I accidentally called Joanna: sorry!) made an important counter-argument. She explained how important it is that victims of abuse feel that that the community believes them and acknowledges how they have suffered. Seeing the marks of Savile's honour removed from public display is part of the process that supports them and helps them to recover. That's something that I accept, of course. All I added on the programme is that there is also another principle at stake, and it may not be easy to reconcile it with the needs of Savile's victims. That other principle is free and equal access to the historical record.

For the next seven days you can listen again here. The item begins at 2:24:00.

Here's my conclusion. If you count up all the things that are in our power to do to vindicate and support the abuser's victims, we should unhesitatingly do 99 per cent of them. Nothing should be named after Jimmy Savile. The BBC shouldn't schedule repeats of his shows. But there is a residual 1 per cent where we should stop and think twice. To hold back from deleting the historical record of Desert Island Discs may leave us uncomfortable -- some, I acknowledge, much more than others. But it is required to preserve free and equal access to our own cultural history.

Ironically, the BBC's own policy seems to have left it in the middle. Jimmy Savile's Desert Island Discs recording has gone, but it has been removed without acknowledging the true reasons. The Desert Island Discs website continues to display his image and beside it the programme notes of the time, which speak only of Savile's successes, not of his disgrace.

Consistent with this, the Desert Island Discs FAQs state the perspective of the historian:

Every piece of data is part of the overall Desert Island Disc archive, and much of what was said captures a particular moment in the castaway’s life which puts the interview itself in the context of the time it was recorded.

But if the historian's rule is right, it should also protect the recording.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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