A freelance despot, Savile befriended both high and low in the NHS. In return, they helped him commit his crimes
In the whole 253-page report into Jimmy Savile’s activities at Leeds General Infirmary there is just one instance where he troubles hospital bosses. Doctors complain that, although only a volunteer porter, he is plonking his vast Rolls-Royce in the consultants’ car park, filling two bays.
Savile skulking the wards in the dead of night; his access to nurses’ quarters and mortuary alike; the near-universal disgust felt for him by female staff — and, of course, his copious crimes — were not under their purview.
For a study in absolute power — how to win and exercise it; how to create useful allies and deflect would-be enemies; how to indulge undetected your taste for violence, humiliation and sexual depravity; how to steal trophies from the dead and the innocence from children and yet be garlanded with honours — forget Machiavelli. Read the Leeds and Broadmoor hospital Savile reports. Not every despot needs a nation; some go freelance.
The first principle of Savile’s modus operandi was: sort out the top and the bottom, then the middle will neither care nor dare. So at Leeds he first befriends night porters, dropping in for late-night chats, buying TVs for their seedy hospital bolt holes where they drank, played cards and entertained women. All against the rules, but Savile wouldn’t tell if they kept his secrets, too.
We never learn the names of men who note that Jimmy, viewing the board where portering jobs were chalked up, always bagged patients from the women’s or children’s wards. Nor do we know his accomplices, who, after his victims had been assaulted in linen cupboards or side-rooms, suddenly appeared to lead them away. “No one knew” is the Savile refrain. But they saw, they heard, they knew.
Besides keeping sweet the lowliest men, Savile ingratiated himself with the most powerful. At Leeds he befriended the chief governor; in Broadmoor he actually chose him, after Edwina Currie bizarrely trusted his judgment in heading up a task force to change hospital culture. He promised the minister he’d win officers’ compliance by threatening to expose their overtime fiddling to The Sun. He never did; conscious, no doubt, of what they had on him.
In Broadmoor, he didn’t need the slapdash security guards to lend him keys, to slip him in without question as he had in Leeds. The governor gave him, along with an office and a house near the grounds, a whole set of his own. This not only afforded him a back route to the women’s wards, but guaranteed nurses never challenged what he was allowed to see. Some were uncomfortable as Savile watched the female patients bathe, commenting on their “nice Bristols”. But they knew he had the power to have them sacked.
Nurses mainly feared and loathed Savile: scuttling out of the canteen or into their station when he showed up. The senior ones knew “You don’t get too close”; that it was dangerous to leave him alone with a student, especially one who looked young for her years. They found him a hindrance on the wards, hated dodging his groping hands. They had an idea what he was doing to patients, since he relentlessly tried the same on them.
Moreover, as several in the Leeds report point out, this was the reign of the Yorkshire Ripper. If police could not keep women safe from a serial killer, why would they bother about Jimmy Savile? So the nurses mostly shut up and watched their backs.
But not all. The only heartening moments in the report are when Savile is challenged. A senior nurse turns on him and says she doesn’t want the self-styled “chief cheerer-upper” dropping in whenever he feels like it. A grandmother, seeing her granddaughter being felt up beneath blankets, screams. And instead of confrontation, Savile
In Broadmoor, he avoided the wards run by the sternest custodians, those who wouldn’t bend rules because it’s “just Jimmy”, the governor’s best pal. Savile used his customary greeting — kissing the length of a woman’s arm — to “scope” for malleable staff: homing in on the gigglers, sidestepping those who recoiled in disgust.
These reports are a cure for nostalgia, especially about the NHS’s supposed golden age. It is hard to feel sentimental about porters and consultants alike being drunk, while a single student nurse is left in sole charge of a ward all night.
Savile could not operate with such impunity today.
And yet the female Broadmoor patient who is written off as troublesome after complaining about abuse reminds me of girls in the recent Oxford grooming case. When they complained to police and social workers about the men who raped, drugged and tortured them, they were dismissed as child prostitutes who had made a “lifestyle choice”.
Meanwhile on the very day of the Savile reports, Ofsted admitted that its inspections into Stanbridge Earls School had failed to pick up a culture that enabled the rape and sexual assault of pupils. Closed institutions are still problematic worlds.
But at least the Savile reports may quell your fury about the annoyances of modern life: swipe card security, CRB checks and the professionalisation of menial jobs such as portering. And you may conclude that we don’t live in a dirty-minded age that imagines paedophiles around every corner, but one that has learnt, over decades and after many grave mistakes to protect little girls on hospital trolleys from roaming eccentrics with squeaky clown noses.