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The paradox of autonomy and accountability

The paradox of autonomy and accountability

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‘How could it have been allowed to happen?’ Thus the apparently dumbfounded response of many commentators to the floodtide of allegations that Jimmy Savile sexually abused or harassed teenage girls, and possibly, boys, for over forty years while employed by one of our most venerable public institutions. The BBC Panorama investigation into Newsnight’s decision last December to pull their story on Savile, and the ITV Exposure  documentary into Savile himself, together hint at the beginnings of an answer. They reveal that a series of media staff and managers who either harboured suspicions about Savile or heard rumours about his activities or even had direct evidence of them, remained silent. Some were heard to say that it ‘had never occurred to them’ to report the claims or investigate them further, while Esther Rantzen tearfully conceded that those around Savile had ‘blocked their ears to the gossip’. 

Why? Whatever individual reasons were at work (fear of reprisals was an obvious one) perhaps a deeper factor is that they each found themselves caught up, unwittingly, in a deep moral paradox bequeathed to us by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and still unresolved. The paradox arises from the simultaneous pursuit of two powerful aspirations which at the time seemed all of a piece but which in fact stand in profound tension: the demand for effective institutional accountability and the desire for radical personal autonomy.

The former set in train a series of far-reaching structural changes that began to redress the deep power imbalances that made many large institutions undemocratic, remote, inflexible and sometimes oppressive. The push for accountability was launched with the student protests in the universities. However inchoate, and indeed indulgent, some of these now appear, universities are today much more responsive to the needs and expectation of both students and wider society then they were prior to the 1960s.

Demands for greater corporate accountability also gathered steam, supported by powerful post-war trades unions.  While the simplistic ‘open the books’ chants of the seventies faded long ago, today’s large corporations are constrained by a plethora of laws, codes of conduct and public expectations to be fairer, more transparent, and more socially and environmentally responsible than they ever were in the 1950s. Even governments were called to account, such as for their militarism – the Vietnam war protests in the US led to the War Powers Acts of 1973 – or for their bureaucratic unresponsiveness – as seen in numerous incremental steps towards greater participation in decision-making. It is also now plain that if the BBC had moved faster towards effective accountability forty years ago Savile’s abuse might have been stopped in its tracks early on.

But the legitimate campaign for greater institutional accountability was accompanied by the assertion of an entitlement to radical personal autonomy permitting the maximisation of individual satisfaction, limited only by the supposed ‘consent’ of others – a consent, however, which often turned out to be dutiful rather than truly uncoerced. An expectation of unrestricted self-expression, going far beyond the quite proper extensions of personal freedom that era produced, achieved powerful cultural legitimacy.

Its consequences have been corrosive in many sectors of culture and personal life – not least sexual behaviour. A journalist interviewed in the Exposure programme who followed Savile closely in his early career observed casually that no-one bothered to ask whether the young girls in his entourage were of age ‘because it was the era of free love’. That era may have offered greater transitory sexual pleasure for some but only at the subsequent cost, to many more, of enormous emotional distress and relational instability, a massive increase in sexually transmitted diseases (not least HIV/Aids), the routinisation of abortion, an explosion of divorce, a multi-billion internet porn industry and the premature sexualisation of children. It’s not clear who exactly ‘consented’ to all of that.

It is exactly the same aspiration for unrestrained self-satisfaction that drives the libertarian economics of unfettered individual choice which tolerates limits on market exchanges only to maximise a largely illusory individual choice for all. But combine the drive for maximum personal gain unleashed and legitimated by this manic philosophy, with systemically weak institutional accountability, and you get the banking meltdown of 2008.  Equally, combine a powerful sense of entitlement to sexual self-expression with the weak accountability culture of the BBC forty years ago, and you open up a moral and institutional space in which the Jimmy Saviles of this world could be left free to wreak their own quiet dressing-room horrors.

Effective institutional accountability certainly helps restrain damaging actions like those of a Savile. But the ambition for radical personal autonomy pulls in entirely the opposite direction and undermines even the most rigorous of accountability structures. The question the BBC should ask itself is whether the resolve of its staff to expose Savile’s abuse over the last forty years was fatally weakened not only by its weak accountability procedures but also by its tacit indulgence of a culture of sexual autonomy which induced key actors to turn a blind eye to the predatory narcissism of their lovable, quirky, if admittedly slightly ‘pervy’, celebrity.

The larger question for society as a whole is whether it has resolved, or even recognised, this debilitating moral paradox left to us by the intoxicating cultural revolution of half a century ago. Since the early vanguards of this revolution have now either retired or, like Savile, passed on, there is perhaps a unique generational opportunity to take a second look.


Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics

Image by Kat from flickr.com available under this Creative Commons licence.

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