In a period when politicians gaze ardently into the camera while delivering speeches which have been manufactured by slick, up market PR gurus, it is any wonder that the one thing money can't buy in the corridors of Westminster is a sense of authenticity? In the post-Blairite political climate where meaning has been reduced to the glib sound bite, it is inevitable that we are fascinated by the few remaining voices who still wield the power to shock, who can snap us out of the coma-like complacency twenty first century politics manages to induce.
In the field of journalism, Brendan O'Neill provides just such a voice. The editor of Spiked magazine, and blogger on The Huffington Post and The Daily Telegraph, is infamous for swimming against the current; for taking provocative and unpopular stances on issues from global warming to feminism. His most recent pieces on the Jimmy Savile revelations have positively simmered in controversy; when the scandal first broke, and the number of reported victims began to climb, O'Neill penned a sharp, acerbic piece in which he argued the rising tide of public feeling against the late BBC presenter had certain sinister undertones. It was unfair, said O'Neill, to condemn someone who was already in the ground and lacked the wherewithal to defend himself, but more than this, he suggested, the 'savaging of Savile' had spun out of all control taking on the tenor and complexion of a medieval witch hunt.
As one might expect such observations, designed to pull no punches, generated a barrage of criticism but perhaps more surprisingly still - a considerable degree of sympathy. Have O'Neill's claims actually stood the test of the last few months as the sheer scale of Savile's abuse became apparent? In retrospect, it feels as though they haven't.
The notion that people should stop pushing for exposure simply because Savile could never be tried in a court of law felt like a fundamental cop out in the first place, especially given the testimony which was available at the time, and which indicated Savile himself had used his prestige and his celebrity as a virtual gagging order to stifle the press. The fact that Savile hadn't been involved in a criminal trial prior to his death was not incidental but rather symptomatic of the power and influence he wielded more broadly.
But what about O'Neill's more ominous suggestion that the swell of resentment toward Savile, if left unchecked, would graduate into hysteria and persecution? On the face of it this claim seems somewhat more tenable; in the Savile aftermath we have had at least one politician - Lord McAlpine - who was incorrectly labelled as a child molester by the BBC programme Newsnight. One instinctively feels that the BBC, having over-looked Savile's activities so comprehensively and for so long, had now performed a classic gesture of overcompensation - desperate, as it was, to assure an astonished public that their beloved Aunty was more petticoats than paedophiles.
But though there is a real danger of hasty accusations flying loose and fast in such an emotionally fraught context, the 'witch hunt' metaphor employed by O'Neill doesn't work on a logical level. The actual basis for medieval witch hunts was, in the main, the relation between men with power and women with none. Savile was never in a position of powerlessness, nor were those who facilitated him. The idea that most powerful sections of the political class and high chiefs of broadcasting past and present are now facing some genuine form of persecution is a chimera which only serves distract from the real victims, the hundreds of children who suffered at Savile's hands.
O'Neill's skewed sense of the way power-relations operate underpins the shock jock format of the articles he trots out. One of his recent contributions to the Savile scandal is this piece which argues that the victims of Savile's abuse should really just learn to keep it to themselves. He rails against a system in which 'today's therapeutic industry promotes the idea that the best way to cope with bad experiences is to revisit them, relive them, tell everyone all about them'. What good can talking about it do after the event? According to O'Neill, It only helps those 'desperate for more episodes of perversions to pore over...salacious tabloids...[and]...feministic commentators on the broadsheets who muse at length about "cultures of abuse"'.
The 'feministic commentators' provide a particular target for O'Neill's invective as he feels, for them, 'the existence of an alleged 300 Savile victims is like manna from heaven'. The 'alleged victims' themselves will not benefit from airing such 'unpleasant things', but even if they were to, we could never be completely sure of the veracity of the claims in the first place - 'It is virtually impossible to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the allegations against him are true'.
In O'Neill's account the villains of the piece emerge as the very people who urge victims to speak out because those same people are part of an 'abuse obsessed' culture. What such contrarian and provocative observations fail to register, what O'Neill remains blithely unconcerned with, are the power relations which underpin the Savile crimes, and allowed them to go unchecked for decade upon decade. It was the very fact that the victims felt unable to speak out, or those that did were simply side-lined and marginalized; it was this system wide 'un-voicing' of powerless children which allowed the abuse to go on and on. When O'Neill argues that the 'alleged victims' should simply keep stum, he is, in effect, helping to bolster the type of attitude which proves wholly conducive to the perpetrators but utterly destructive for the victims.
Take a look at Brendan O'Neill. What do you see? A hip, cutting edge-blogger who consistently pushes the boundaries with his ironic and cutting prose? Now look again. The same person morphs into a different figure entirely; the rather fusty figure of the Victorian patriarch who believes that feminists are invariably whinny and hysterical, that society has become far too touchy feely and we should bury any unpleasantness by bucking up and maintaining a stiff upper lip. Above all, his arguments harken back to a time where children were seen but not heard.