By Dr. Abdul Wahid
This matter goes far beyond the case of one man. The market-driven attitude towards women, which treats them as commodities, is all too often justified as a “bit of fun” in liberal societies. Until that painful fact is confronted, Britain will forever be looking at ways of cleaning up after the damage has been done.
For those in Britain of a certain age Jimmy Saville was inextricably associated with family television entertainment, popular music radio and raising money for charity.
The eulogies that followed his death a year ago reflected this. Yet just one year later his reputation is in the gutter, with allegation after allegation of sexual molestation of young women and girls throughout his career in television, radio and charity fundraising. The most disturbing allegations are those of molesting the vulnerable who were ill in hospital – though much of what was public whilst he was alive (and still a respected figure, decorated by the Queen) about his behaviour that has since been repeated, is also shocking. For example, he claimed in his autobiography that he had had many intimate relations with members of the opposite sex in “trains…boats and planes and bushes and fields, corridors, doorways, floors, chairs, slag heaps, desks…”.
No one has attempted to portray this as the failing of one perverse man. It would be impossible to do that – for it has emerged that Saville’s reputation was an ‘open secret’ amongst BBC staff. Despite that he was promoted to the public, given access to young women and girls – and it seems clear that senior executives and colleagues tolerated his disgusting behaviour.
Moreover, others have described a wider problem within the BBC – the heart of the British establishment – where such behaviour appears to have been commonplace.
Former BBC radio presenter Liz Kershaw described her disturbing experiences of joining Radio One in the 1980s, comparing it to walking in to a ‘rugby club locker room’, saying it was intimidating. She described how she was physically molested whilst on air, but when she complained about it, nothing was done.
Broadcaster and writer Janet Street-Porter has gone further to say this was the culture within media at the time – saying things were much the same in ITV at the time. Many of us have come to realize that what we were ignorant of, many others were all too well aware of in years gone by.
But for those who think that a public opinion that permitted promiscuity, sexual harassment and dishonouring women was a thing of the past, need to look more honestly at the present.
For whilst the BBC and other broadcasters might feel they have changed. Indeed, they felt sufficiently self-confident to fiercely attack the Catholic Church for its own sex abuse history and subsequent cover-up. But can it really be said about the rest of society that it has indeed changed?
Anyone who has spent any length of time in an all-male atmosphere of a staff-room or sporting club, will know that the culture of viewing women as commodities is sadly alive and kicking.
Anyone who has come across the phenomenon of ‘lads mags’ will know that there is big money to be made by marketing women’s looks and bodies like this.
Big media proprietors – like Rupert Murdoch (owner of the Times and The Sun newspapers) and Richard Desmond (owner of the Daily Express) have made fortunes from selling photos of undressed women – yet have been respected pillars of the establishment (at least until Murdoch’s recent fall from grace over the phone-hacking scandal).
Furthermore, the BBC is not the only part of the British establishment with questions to answer. In 2010, a Channel 4 News report was told that between 2007 and 2009, 76 allegations of rape were investigated by the British Armed Forces – of which only two cases ended in conviction (2.6%).
And the figures about rape in civilian society are hardly more reassuring – approximately 7% – with more disturbingly, many victims feeling there is no point in raising their trauma as they will not be believed.
In the greater London region alone, the latest figures showed the reporting of rape from April 2012 to the end of September 2012 to be 1,444 reports – sexual abuse toward women on an epidemic scale. The latest proposed ‘solution’, in October 2012 was that the police are to use licensing laws to close pubs and clubs where ‘high levels of rapes and sexual assaults have occurred’ – which could hardly be said to be tackling the problem in a fundamental way.
Society has made the debasement of women so common place that recently, a serious news report about the start of term for University student asked: ‘Is student life becoming more sexist?’ – adding that amongst Britain’s intellectual hopes for the future: “Freshers’ week has just been upon us – and more and more club nights were promoted with themes of misogyny.’
In the end, what people fail to address, despite these shocking statistics and more, are the causes of this attitude and behaviour towards women – whether the Saville-like behaviour, or the rape and abuse of women more generally. What is it that allows such a culture to be tolerated?
It is not one single factor, but a series of mutually reinforcing factors. Entertainment for students that debases women – and a lad-mag, ‘Page-3’, locker-room culture amongst young men – supply and demand between individuals and businesses, each reinforcing the other – made permissible by a market that permits this trade.
A permissive culture; a media that uses women for art, entertainment, to advertise and sell products – and a fashion industry that promotes an image of woman for a male appetite – all these are long-standing factors, but they have been exponentially magnified by the internet over the past 10 years.
In July 2012, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, suggested that teenage relationships have become more abusive because of the easy access to internet pornography, citing increasing evidence of a relationship between the two – something people usual play down or deny.
In short, to deal with the problem at source would require a curtailment of freedoms that are the source of much revenue to powerful vested interests in British society.
Politicians in a capitalist democratic society will not dare defy those vested interests nor easily legislate to reduce people’s choices and freedoms – even though they harm society.
As a consequence, we see them forever searching for ways to mitigate the damage after it has been done – endless child protection strategies to safeguard children from predators, instead of curbing the environment that breeds and nurtures such predators; efforts to improve detection and conviction in cases of rape, instead of curbing the environment that nurtures rapists.
There is very rarely an admission that ‘freedom’ has gone too far and is the ultimate cause of harm to women in society – that there is a market driven attitude to women, which demeans them through treating them as commodities, exploiting them for their physical appearance. And this is all too often justified as legitimate free expression or ‘a bit of harmless fun’.
Until that painful fact is confronted, Britain will forever be looking at ways of cleaning up after the damage has already been done.
Dr. Abdul Wahid is a regular contributor to New Civilisation. He is currently the Chairman of the UK-Executive Committee of Hizb ut-Tahrir in Britain. He has been published in The Times Higher Educational Supplement and on the websites of Foreign Affairs, Open Democracy and Prospect magazine. He can be followed on Twitter @abdulwahidht or emailed at [email protected]