News of the World, 14th December 1975
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:
News of the World, 17th August 1975
See also Don Hale’s recent Mirror article, which alleges that former Home Secretary Leon Brittan “ran Special Branch as his own personal ‘Gestapo’, who monitored fellow MPs.”
A recent Mail on Sunday article by Paul Cahalan and Peter Henn alleged that former Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw ordered police to drop an investigation into a VIP paedophile ring. The full article can be found here
The article mentions an Evening News story by Jeff Edwards, which is reproduced below.
Evening News (London), 7th July 1980
TOP PEOPLE NAMED IN BOYS-FOR-SEX INQUIRY [Evening News (London), 7th July 1980]
A network of homosexuals preying on schoolboys has been smashed by a special London police squad.
Detectives working from an HQ in the East End have spent almost a year on the inquiry.
Now a dozen men may face trial for a catalogue of serious sex offences including indecent assault and procuring under-age boys.
Police believe that at least one of the men has been involved in obtaining young boys for famous people, including politicians, prominent lawyers, show-business and film stars.
The youngest victim was six years old. Police say the majority of others were only 12 or 13 when the alleged offences were committed.
The investigation covers a three-year period.
Almost 40 youngsters have now made statements to the six man squad based at Arbour Square police station in Stepney and allegations of more than 350 offences, or attempted offences, including buggery, are being considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Police say they have found a link between homosexuals in London and Liverpool.
Many of the youngsters recruited on Merseyside were said to be retarded children from schools for the educationally sub-normal.
London detectives have spent three weeks in the north interviewing victims where 12 youngsters have now made allegations.
In some instances they have been told of boys being tied face down by their wrists and ankles to beds, stripped and assaulted.
The investigation began after detectives became suspicious about activities at an East End cafe.
They kept watch and noted a number of young boys visiting. Shortly after the first arrests were made.
One detective said: “From then on the investigation snowballed into an enormous inquiry.
“We are convinced that many other youngsters may have been dragged into the vice network but have been too afraid or ashamed to tell us.”
Strange Days (published with many thanks to the author who wishes to remain anonymous)
As we await publication of the Wanless/Whittam review, here are some brief sentences on the strange atmosphere that allowed groups calling for the decriminalization of paedophilia to lobby and infiltrate the Home Office.
It was an era of turbulence and change. Things now illegal had yet to be so defined; and things then illegal had not yet been repealed. Laws and ideas relating to sex were bitterly fought over. Many paedophiles felt emboldened in such an atmosphere and thought their moment had come.
Their lobby, presented as part of broader liberation movements, was said to stand for modernity and common sense. This actually convinced some people. One editor of Gay News claimed that: “We were fighting against a lot of outmoded laws, and perhaps the ones against paedophilia were as outmoded as those against homosexuality or cannabis.”
The Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE), which existed from 1974-84, was the most notorious member of the lobby. It existed and operated openly. Most of its members maintained their anonymity, but others chose not to. In some circles members were very open indeed.
PIE members gained and held positions at legitimate, mainstream pressure groups like the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and the Campaign for Homosexual Equality (CHE). But PIE operated much more widely. Members associated, formally and informally, with a whole range of influential people from a bewildering array of pressure groups and community organisations, both large and small. Some maintained relationships with MPs and Civil Servants.
The Home Office seemingly lacked the will to combat these trends and, consequently, necessary legislative change was resisted. The mess in relation to child protection was summed up by The Times in February 1978: ‘At present police have difficulty in gaining a conviction under the Sexual Offences Act 1956, because there must be evidence of assault on a child. The Indecency with Children Act, 1960, is concerned only with those under the age of 14 and its wording is not clear. The Obscene Publications Act, 1959, has been described as the most useless legislation on the statute book.’
This confusion allowed for an open trade in ‘kiddyporn’. One shopkeeper, who argued that giving paedophiles access to such material prevented them from “going out after the real thing”, nevertheless had ‘no idea whether the magazines he sells will be judged indecent by police, who he says are as bewildered by the present law as he is.’
Cyril Townsend, a backbench Conservative MP, asked the Home Office to act. In response, he claimed, it said: “that the problem did not exist, then that it had all been exaggerated, and finally that it was impossible to do anything about it.”
Townsend sought to tackle child pornography by sponsoring a Private Members’ Bill that eventually became the Protection of Children Act 1978. He became a PIE hate figure in the process. He lamented the need for private action and said this was only necessary because the Home Office itself was unwilling to propose its own legislation: “MPs of all parties have expressed their support, and I do not think that I will have difficulty getting the required number of MPs in the House… The only people who are not giving me their support are the Home Office and their lawyers. I find their attitude extraordinary.”
A Times leader column, in discussing the Bill, demonstrated the liberal confusion of the day: ‘It is right that severe penalties should be readily available against those who exploit children in a detestable trade. It is more questionable whether they should fall on the addicts as well as the pushers – on the furtive swapping of pictures as well as their commercial promotion. At an earlier stage in the drafting of the Bill it was even intended to make even possession [sic] an offence, on the grounds that even that might make the owner dangerous to children. That would have been wrong, and might have resulted in blackmail.’
Another example comes from the Committee on Obscenity and Film Censorship (otherwise known as the Williams Committee), which reported in November 1979 and took a relaxed, relativist line on pornography: ‘Given the amount of explicit sexual material in circulation and the allegations often made about its effects, it is striking that one can find case after case of sex crimes and murder without any hint at all that pornography was present in the background.’
The paedophile lobby was a lobby of ideas. It sought to change minds. The law, it believed, would then follow. The minds it sought above all were those within the Home Office.
A Home Office paper from 1979 (‘Sexual Offences, Consent and Sentencing’) suggested a lowering of the age of consent to 14 and that punishments be reduced for ‘consensual’ sex with girls of even younger ages. It said: “Paradoxical though it might seem to argue that [the point at which tougher sentences are applied] should be lower than the average age of puberty it is not unreasonable. The average age is 13, but it is not unusual for a girl to reach puberty before her 10th birthday or after her 16th. Thus a large number of 12-year-old girls have already attained puberty and may not only be willing to take part in sexual activity but may actually initiate it.”
Tom O’Carroll, former PIE Chairman, has written of this Home Office paper: ‘It took the recognition of “under-age” consent seriously, using the term “partners” rather than “victims”. He added that: ‘Also – and this will raise eyebrows but I said it way back in 1980 in my book Paedophilia the Radical Case – we had it on reliable authority that [Roy] Jenkins [Home Secretary] personally read PIE’s evidence to the Home Office Criminal Law Revision Committee on the age of consent and that our proposals for law reform caught his imagination.’
Other groups shared key parts of PIE’s agenda, but also had broader concerns and were thus less obviously objectionable. The Sexual Law Reform Society (SLRS), for example, grew out of the genuine need to reform laws relating to homosexuality and had several establishment figures on its executive committee, including parliamentarians, intellectuals, and a clergyman.
Nevertheless, Dr John Robinson, Chair of the SLRS and Dean of Trinity College, Cambridge, openly lectured on the ‘effect of sexual experience on children’. He quoted and described as “wise” the words of an anonymous former probation officer: “Harm results much more from the tension between an individual’s experience and that of his reference group than from the experience in itself. Some research on childhood ‘victim’ of sexual offences would appear to bear this out in that it is the subsequent parental horror, police investigation, etc., which are significantly more disturbing than the offence.”
Robinson later said: “On the age of consent it’s quite clear the law is largely an ass. There is a vast amount of illegal sexual activity going on where ultimately no one is being exploited or damaged or abused… Theoretically it would be much better not to have any age of consent at all, but to settle the matter according to any particular case – according to whether a person really is being abused or exploited.”
Groups with establishment credentials like the NCCL and SLRS were able to feed ideas in this area directly to the Criminal Law Revision Committee (CLRC) at the Home Office. But other groups, PIE included, did so too, both to the CLRC and elsewhere. One official submission, by the Gay Activists Alliance, actually signed off by declaring: ‘Gay love and paedophile kisses, or paedophile love and gay kisses to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, from the London Gay Activists Alliance.’
The Home Office knew of all these groups and their overlapping personnel and agendas. Indeed, an official PIE submission to the CLRC had been made as early as 1975. When powerful figures were involved, as they were, the Home Office would have surely desired knowledge of their activities and intentions, just as PIE and its allies desired knowledge of Home Office activities and intentions. We can say that PIE and others sought to control and influence the Home Office. Might the reverse have also been true?
i ‘Home Truths’ by Christian Wolmar, Independent on Sunday, 8 October 2000
ii ‘Fears over children lured into pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 9 February 1978
iii ‘Profiting in kiddyporn’ by George Brock, The Observer, 12 February 1978
iv ‘Fears over children lured into pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 9 February 1978
v ‘Home Office criticized on child pornography’ by Penny Symon, The Times, 4 February 1978
vi ‘The Need to Protect Children’, The Times, 10 February 1978
vii Obituary: Professor Sir Bernard Williams, The Daily Telegraph, 14 June 2003
viii ‘Whitehall study wanted age of consent lowered to 14’, by Robert Booth, The Guardian, 8 July 2014
ix Tom O’Carroll blog post (26 February 2014: accessed 10 November 2014)
x ‘Sex and the law’ by the Rt. Rev. John Robinson, The Guardian, 6 July 1972
xi ‘Rights and wrongs’ by Michael De-la-Noy, The Guardian, 5 September 1974
xii Gay Activists Alliance submission to the Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, April 1979