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Steve Coogan is to play Jimmy Saville in a “sensitive” BBC drama, as The Reckoning has been described, as news of a new mini-series based on the life of the notorious paedophile TV presenter was announced.
Jimmy Saville, one of Britain’s most prolific sex offenders, was lauded and put on a pedestal by the same organisation who are now intending to create a film of this “complex” character – about the legacy he left behind; the abuses he meted out towards hundreds of young children during his lifetime.
Within a year of his death in 2011, the police were investigating 300 potential child sex abuse cases. Since then, we have come to learn that through his work with the NHS, Saville was routinely abusing patients between the ages of five and 75.
Much of this was broader knowledge, and much was covered up by people around him, people who were profiting from his status. It has been alleged that rumours of Savile’s activities had circulated at the BBC in the 1960s and 1970s – but no action had been taken. Soon after his death, BBC Newsnight were to show a programme with “cogent evidence” of abuse, but this was never televised.
I understand the fascination our society has with criminals, especially those who come across as “normal”; as charming and attractive – those who on the surface seem to not fit the standard profile of a criminal as socially awkward and a misfit. And yes – evil fascinates so many of us. There’s a push and pull between good and evil that we are constantly pre-occupied with.
People watch true crime stories because they would like to believe that they would never behave like this, and they are interested in finding out what drives others to such behaviours. It makes people glad that they are not the perpetrator. There is also a theory that we are evolved to pay attention to what could harm us so that we could be better prepared for any dangers.
In some ways, these stories also act as a social glue, where we can all feel outraged together. It is in our nature to be inquisitive, but the mental health impact of such stories are not yet completely understood.
These true crime stories shift the focus away from the survivors and the victims and instead create (or perpetuate) the celebrity of the criminal. These celebrity monsters become a band unto themselves – selling books, TV shows and merchandise.
When we marginalise those who go through the abuse, and instead talk about the life and legacy of a person who perpetrated it, we forget the psychological trauma that is reinflicted on the survivors who are probably trying to somehow put it all behind them and get on with their lives.
I felt sick reading the announcement of this mini-series, even though I never had any personal contact with this man. It horrifies me to consider the impact this could have on those who were abused by him, including those who chose not to come forward. They will still have to see him on their screens – and revisit the horrors they went through. Our fascination with these types of stories could force them to relive their trauma everytime Saville’s name comes up on social media or on their TV screen.
It also feels insidiously callous and thoughtless that an organisation that played a role in glorifying a sex offender and profiting from him, while covering up his actions for many decades, are once again capitalising on his “brand” and the fascination that viewers have with monsters and true crime.
It is neither “sensitive” nor “complex”, but relatively simple. This series is a bad idea – and is being made at the emotional expense of all the people who were once abused by this very man. Their worst nightmares are being brought to life on screen, to be enjoyed by millions – and creating entertainment from the loss of their childhoods, dignity and self-respect.
There is no compensation for the horrors they experienced. They should be allowed to grieve and recover in peace.
Dr Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural and data scientist, author, speaker and founder of research think-tank The 50 Percent Project