Twenty years ago, Pee Wee Herman was arrested for masturbating in a Florida porno theatre, and his career never recovered. A decade later, Bill Clinton left office on the back of a recession, a failed Middle East peace plan and a near-impeachment after his handling of the Lewinsky affair with the highest approval rating of any departing US president in nearly 50 years.
A certain level of sleaze is always tolerated in public life. The threshold varies from country to country, of course, but there is always one constant: we expect the people who act as the custodians of our children to be above reproach. The whole idea of raising children depends on a gradual lifting of the veil of innocence, of keeping them insulated from the horrors of modern society, which is why even the slightest hint of something untoward in those whom we entrust to their care will never be forgiven.
The ongoing investigation into former TV presenter Jimmy Savile’s life represents perhaps one of the most egregious breaches of this trust since the Children’s Crusade. Now that it seems clear that Savile used the BBC as his own personal pedophile ring, with the complicity or at least silence of many others, and with news that the BBC’s Newsnight current affairs show decided to drop an investigation into Savile’s activities late last year, faith in one of Britain’s most trusted institutions has been eroded.
Public sentiment in the United Kingdom has been galvanised to an extent not seen since the Milly Dowler murder, and the subsequent revelations about the conduct of News of the World journalists that led to the establishment of the Leveson Inquiry.
When Gary Glitter was arrested in London on Sunday as part of the police probe into Savile’s activities, many of the people commenting on Twitter expressed surprise that the former pop singer was even in the country, believing him to still be imprisoned in this part of the world. Glitter, who lived in Cambodia after a conviction for possessing child pornography in Britain, was deported to Vietnam in 2002, and later served a custodial sentence for having sex with two underage girls in the port town of Vung Tau.
Ten years ago, then Women’s Affairs Minister Mu Sochua led the campaign to force Glitter out on the grounds that his presence was bad for the country’s image. When Glitter was deported instead of being held pending investigations into allegations of sexual abuse, Cambodia abrogated its judicial responsibilities in this area, a tradition that has continued with last year’s pardon of Alexander Trofimov. If there is a lesson to be learned from the Newsnight fiasco, and if Sochua’s sentiments are shared by her erstwhile government colleagues, one hopes this country will come to realise that its “image problem” won’t be resolved by simply wishing it away.