Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Jimmy Saville case raises questions over the cult of celebrity and the role of charities

The scandal over the sex abuse committed by Jimmy Savile over four decades raises a number of questions.

One has been why it remained undetected for so long. Clearly many of the victims were frightened of the power that Savile wielded as a major public figure with huge wealth. This provided him with the capacity to conduct an offensive through the courts against anyone questioning his name.
The whole Savile affair though raises questions about the cult of celebrity and the role charities play within that sphere. Once individuals achieve celebrity status, they are virtually worshipped like idols. Whether that celebrity comes in the world of show business or sport, these people become Gods.

Many of them really are not very nice people in the first place. When the adulation of becoming a celebrity in the public eye comes about it really does go to their heads.

Footballers provide a good example. Many come from very humble backgrounds, then suddenly they are elevated to being paid tens of thousands of pounds a week. The fans adore them and they become mini-Gods. Observe any Premiership football club car park after a game, as the stars drive off in their huge expensive cars to see the sort of adulation in action.

Many of the misdeeds of footballers feature in the newspapers these days to a level that they never have done in the past. But still much goes on that is not in the public eye. The use of the super injunction over recent years has kept much hidden.

Another thing that comes with celebrity status is a desire to embrace charity. This was seen with Savile, who famously worked at Stoke Mandeville and did many marathons for charity. It raised a vista of good in the public sphere. This so called good though can also act as a cover for nefarious behaviour as was the case with Savile.

Just as Royaly split a number of good causes between them, so it is all part of the PR profiling to encourage celebrities to embrace charity. It always gives me an uncomfortable feeling when seeing the celebrities clamouring to be part of things like Children in Need, Sport Aid and Comic Relief. Are they really doing it for the cause or simply to help with the PR profile?

The Savile affair also raises questions for the charities themselves, who clamour to get celebrities to promote their various causes. This is understandable in such a debased public discourse, where it is difficult to get serious issues into the mainstream, the celebrity path can be the only channel to make an impact. But charities need to be aware of the way they are being used, as well as being the users.

The media also needs to look at its role in raising celebrity to the level of prominence that it enjoys in society. The media often build celebrities up, only to take equal pleasure in pulling them down.

It has been a strange sight to behold some newspapers idolising Savile when he died only to hardly mention the serial allegations of rape and abuse that have now surfaced about the individual. There is a lesson in this affair for these publications, namely to never fly too close to the celebrity sun.

So much copy is wasted on the cult of celebrity because it sells paper – in the case of Jimmy Savile and many others this has proved to be a very grubby faustian pact.

Though on the other side of the argument, it was the excellent ITV Exposure documentary team who brought the Savile abuse out into the open.

Possibly the decline of religion, particularly in this country, has played a part in the rise of the cult of celebrity. The need of people to worship something. The Savile affair certainly raises many questions about that cult: the role of charity and the way in which society seems to need to idolise certain individuals. This gives the individuals concerned immense power, which as the Savile case proves, all too often gets abused.

*see Morning Star - 17/10/2012

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