Safe spaces: Fear and harassment as the norm
As Stuart Hall reminds us, writes Eddie Ford, bourgeois society and its institutions are far less safe for women and children than any far-left group
Allegations of “historic” child sex abuse against well known names are now almost a daily occurrence. The latest to stand accused are the 73-year-old Jimmy Tarbuck and the 69-year-old Eddy Shah. The former, a ‘light entertainer’ who has an OBE for services to show business and charity, has been questioned about a sexual assault on a “young boy” during the late 1970s. As for Shah, notorious for using Margaret Thatcher’s anti-union laws to defeat the print unions in 1983, he has been charged with six counts of rape involving an under-age girl during the 1990s.
Meaning that Tarbuck and Shah have joined the lengthening list of celebrities alleged to have committed child sexual abuse - Max Clifford, Jim Davidson, Freddie Star, Dave Lee Travis, Rolf Harris and Bill Roache. So far all have strenuously denied the accusations. Obviously, writers for the Weekly Worker - just like its readers - have no idea as to the guilt or innocence of those named above. But what we do know for sure is that another very famous celebrity connected to British showbiz, the late and now officially anathematised Jimmy Savile, was a sex abuser/offender on an industrial scale. Ever since the grim truth emerged, the not unreasonable - and growing - suspicion has been that Savile was not just an aberrant individual. Rather, he was in some sense the product - albeit an extreme one - of a much wider culture of abusive male behaviour and sexual exploitation that existed in the entertainment business and elsewhere.
Appearing to confirm this view, recent headlines have been dominated by the 83-year-old Stuart Hall - another certified national treasure. For decades he has been a highly popular radio/television presenter and commentator. He is most famous, of course, for being the clownish compère of It’s a knockout - the “Olympic Games with custard pies”. At its high point in the 1970s-80s, the show regularly attracted around 15 million and was near compulsory viewing for British people of a certain generation (including this journalist).
In 1999 various MPs signed a House of Commons motion “congratulating” Hall on 40 years in broadcasting. His colleague, Savile, was feted in the same way - Thatcher in 1981 described his work as “marvellous”. Indeed, Savile reportedly spent 11 consecutive new year’s eves at Chequers with the Thatcher family - and in 1984 he was accepted as a member of the Athenaeum, a gentlemen’s club in London’s Pall Mall, after being proposed by cardinal Basil Hume. In other words he was a fully accepted as part of establishment.
Stuart Hall mirrors Savile. From saint to villain. Described as “eccentric, erudite, egotistical” and a “distinctive personality who could balance light-entertainment buffoonery with sports and serious news”,1 he pleaded guilty to 14 charges of “indecently assaulting” 13 girls between 1967 and 1986, the youngest being nine years old. Hall will be sentenced on June 17.
His story is depressingly familiar to anyone who followed the Savile scandal - two men allowed total licence to do almost as they pleased. As with Savile, the BBC bosses turned a blind eye to Hall’s behaviour - even though everyone on the inside knew about it. Showing their moral backbone, only after Hall had confessed did his former BBC colleagues start to line up and reveal what a “complete nuisance” he had been to women - he was “one of these people who had his hands all over you”, as one female worker recalled, saying she was now speaking up, as previously she had no idea that his “proclivities” included children.2
Hall would repeatedly invite women to an old medical room close to where the BBC filmed Look north. And he did not like to take no as an answer. Of course, we now hear, “it was common gossip that Stuart Hall used the room for assignations” - so says Gyles Brandreth, the former Tory MP and broadcaster. OK, admits Brandreth, the “atmosphere then was pretty sleazy”, but that is just how it was back then.
Similar stories emerge from others involved in the Manchester scene. Paul Jackson, BBC entertainment director in the 70s, believes that the “fame and the fans it brings with it” - coupled as it was in those days with a “suddenly sexualised society, led a lot of people to believe that anything goes”. But then again, he adds, it is “hopeless to try and apply today’s mores to a very different time”.
One of Hall’s victims recalls the trauma of being assaulted as she returned to the staff quarters of a hotel she was working at aged 17. The woman, who had just been selected as a cheerleader for an edition of It’s a knockout, suddenly heard a voice behind her. “He grabbed hold of me and he started kissing me,” she told ITV News, and “then he tried to force himself on me”. She can “never, ever forget that voice” and over the years every time she heard it on the television or radio, she thought: “How can you do it? How can you be like that in full view of everyone after everything you’ve done?”
Once again, the criminally complacent - and bumbling - BBC management was unable to keep up with events, eventually forced to do an embarrassing volte-face (bit of a BBC speciality these days). Initially, Lord Chris Patton, chairman of the BBC Trust, stated that Hall’s exploits would be examined as part of an existing review into the abuse carried out by Savile. However, it was then announced that there would be a “freestanding investigation” into Hall which would “feed” into the review. Patten said the corporation was also likely to face substantial compensation claims from at least six of Hall’s victims as a result of the “enormous suffering” inflicted on them.
Even more embarrassingly for the BBC, if not humiliatingly, on the very same day that Hall admitted his offences, another inquiry set up in the wake of the Savile scandal reported widespread allegations of bullying and a woefully inadequate complaints procedure - which just about says it all. The report, Respect at work, said there had been 37 complaints of sexual harassment at the corporation over the past six years. It highlighted the chronic problem of “known bullies”, reported by multiple members of staff in different parts of the BBC, who would verbally abuse people and leave them living in a “climate of anxiety and fear”.
Of course, communists have no interest in pursuing a narrow vendetta against the BBC - it is hardly the only bourgeois institution where sexual abuse takes place, after all. Nor probably the worst offender, even after you leave out the Catholic church. The BBC, ultimately, is only part of the problem.
But the Hall revelations should really cause some on the left to rethink their absurd idea - eagerly endorsed by some radical feminists and mendacious, pro-imperialist, mainstream journalists - that the Socialist Workers Party has an ingrained ‘rape culture’ that makes it a more ‘unsafe space’ than the likes of the BBC, perhaps deserving to be no-platformed like the ‘Nazi’ British National Party.
Frankly, this is a crazy notion. Yes, the comrade Delta case was appallingly botched by the SWP’s leadership. For that the organisation needs to be severely criticised and that is what we in the Weekly Worker, among others, have done. But the idea of ostracising the SWP or even driving it out of workers’ movement is a fundamental mistake that can only empower the trade union bureaucracy and all those with an anti-left agenda. The prime reason for the Delta debacle, if truth be told, was the SWP’s ingrained bureaucratic centralism - not its institutionalised ‘misogyny’ or nonsense like that (women formed a majority on the disputes committee that cleared comrade Delta, for instance). Its authoritarian culture privileged certain comrades, making them unaccountable and essentially beyond criticism.
But just think seriously for a moment about the reality of bourgeois society. Its institutions, whatever their formal ideology or ‘equal opportunities’ position may be, are massively more hierarchical - and sexist - than the SWP or any other far-left group. What do you think goes on every day in the offices of The Guardian, The Sun, the Daily Mail, etc? Or what about academia and the highly unequal power relationship between lecturer and student, where the pressure to get ‘good grades’ can lead to sexual exploitation? Nor should we forget the Liberal Democrats and the allegations of a groping Lord Rennard.
By any rational comparison, the SWP is a much ‘safer space’ for women.