The Times, 28th February 2015
by Janice Turner
At Stoke Mandeville, the abuser was allowed to operate because of a toxic mix of his fundraising power and Tory policy
The Jimmy Savile hospital reports read like a grotesque trilogy. Leeds General is Savile Begins — the sly, young abuser honing his style and modus operandi: buy the porters a TV, flatter the top brass, brazen it out with nurses and the rest. Broadmoor is Savile Unbound — free to roam, keys jangling, inviting famous mates to gawp at women’s ward bath time, making playthings of the mad, the forgotten, the unloved.
But Stoke Mandeville is the most complex story. It is, of course, still about sexual abuse: the 60 reported victims, almost half of them children, the horror put in cool officialese that here his fondness for groping patients beneath bedclothes probably evaded detection “as paralysed individuals would not have felt anything below . . . their spinal lesion.” But this is also about how politics and money gave him absolute power. Savile, the King. And it was Margaret Thatcher who crowned him.
If “Name the NHS’s first public-private partnership” comes up in a pub quiz, here’s your answer. Although famously the birthplace of the Paralympic movement, Stoke Mandeville was a hospital village of wooden huts in rambling grounds when, in 1979, the roof of the acclaimed National Spinal Injuries Centre (NSIC) collapsed. Since the new Tory government was set on sweeping cuts, its future was grim.
Now Savile, already a prolific abuser in his guise of unpaid porter and resident celebrity, saw his chance. He offered to raise £10 million to rebuild the unit under his personal charitable trust. The Tories were excited by his financial model, saw this harnessing of private fund-raising as the NHS’s future. In a reckless act of political expediency they ceded this eccentric, with his sweaty nylon tracksuits and tendency to kiss right up women’s bare arms, total control. As Dr Androulla Johnstone’s report says, the same “it’s just Jimmy” exceptionalism that made people shrug off Savile’s bizarre acts also freed him from conventional restraints. Shackle this maverick with bureaucracy, civil servants feared, and he might “disengage”.
So Jimmy was free to choose the architect, select a more grandiose scheme, with a higher upkeep, than was required. But the government wasn’t concerned because Savile pledged also to fund the additional running costs. Millions were donated by a generous public. But how this was spent — ultimately whether Stoke Mandeville lived or died — was put solely in Jimmy Savile’s hands.
Since “his” charity had paid for it, he believed he owned the NSIC, could shape it to his whims. He insisted on thick lobby carpet though it was hell for wheelchair users, demanded pimp flourishes such as zebra-striped ward curtains, had hospital crews service his Rolls, the canteen named “Jimmy’s” and his own vast office have a gold letterbox and flip-down bed. “I’ll withdraw all the trust’s funds,” he threatened.
Once you understand that Savile was not merely a major donor or Mrs T’s well-connected New Year’s Eve party pal but a despot who could summon the hospital’s general manager to his office, making him wait while, feet on desk, he finished his call to the Duchess of York, his criminal impunity is not hard to fathom. Ministers did not know about Savile’s abuse — though were disgusted enough by his crudeness and promiscuity to withhold a knighthood, until Mrs Thatcher interceded — but placed him, as the report says, “outside the regulatory processes designed to prevent such abuses of power”.
But what does it mean to “know” anyway? Reading this report I am reminded of Gitta Sereny’s book about Hitler’s architect: “I think,” she quotes Albert Speer as saying, “that we saw only what we wanted to see and knew only what we wanted to know.” The Nazi wives who summered at the Obersalzberg with the Führer, whose husbands kissed them fresh from some Eastern Front atrocity or Final Solution conflab, did they “know”? Or did they merely not think too hard?
Certainly, on some level, the nurses knew: they detested Savile, fled when he passed by, told little girls to pretend to be asleep, sometimes physically kept him at bay. His bedroom was in the nurses’ quarters. A memo circulated warning new recruits to lock their doors. One occupational therapy tutor recalls tearful teenage students lingering in class on a Friday night because they couldn’t bear to face him. The tutor’s concerns to management were slapped down with a reprimand.
“Victim 21”, whose father made the only official complaint, was told by a Sister Cherry “that Savile would not do such a dreadful thing and that he raised a great deal of money for the hospital”. Spinal patients he abused kept silent for fear he’d kick them out of the NSIC, which was saving their lives.
And what of Savile’s secretary, Janet Cope? She is all over the Stoke Mandeville report: one victim claims she walked in on his abuse, another to have written her an unanswered letter. But after 32 years at his side, Mrs Cope says she saw, heard, knew nothing.
Savile’s abuse at Stoke Mandeville ended in 1992 around the time his absolute power was seized back by the newly created Buckinghamshire NHS hospital trust. Later, having raised money for the children’s ward, he demanded an access-all-areas swipe card as reward. It was denied. Next time the BBC or NHS are damned as dark enclaves of the Stalinist state, too huge and sclerotic to address his crimes, remember that at Stoke Mandeville Jimmy Savile was privatisation’s paedophile prince.
Unpublished letter to the editor of the Times, by Peter McKelvie: