What the Jimmy Savile episode can teach us about cognitive dissonance

March 15, 2019 0 By NatalieM
What the Jimmy Savile episode can teach us about cognitive dissonance

I first heard rumours that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile in the 1980s. The case has been in the news headlines again recenty, as it forms part of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Savile’s notoriety has spread across the globe, but for those who are unfamiliar with the story, Jimmy Savile was a household name in Britain for four decades, a pop radio station DJ who became a prime time television star. He was known for his long-running TV show Jim’ll Fix It, where he granted children their wildest dreams. He was a tireless charity fundraiser, raising an estimated £40 million for hospitals and children’s charities, and a keep fit people’s hero, who ran the London Marathon every year.

Savile even won an award from public morals campaigner Mary Whitehouse, for providing “wholesome family entertainment”.

The hideous reality

During his lifetime, Savile’s thousands of fans had no idea that he was actually raping many of the children in the hospitals he visited. Some of the children whose dreams came true on Jim’ll Fix It found that their dreams rapidly turned into nightmares at the hands of the sex beast.

It wasn’t until after Savile’s death in 2011 that the extent of his sex crimes were revealed in a TV documentary. Savile is believed to have raped or sexually assaulted hundreds of victims, ranging from age five to 75. There were claims of necrophilia, with the DJ being granted regular, unsupervised access to the mortuary of Leeds General Infirmary.

Cognitive dissonance can blind us to disturbing realities. Image from Pixabay

It’s likely that the true extent of Savile’s barbarity will never be fully revealed.

The Wikipedia page on Savile says that allegations linking him to child abuse date back to 1963.

I have always wondered why atrocities such as those carried out under the Nazis can be carried out, with most of the public seemingly unaware or unconcerned, for so long. The Jimmy Savile episode gives me some insight into how these things happen. It’s about cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance is described by Britannica.com as “the mental conflict that occurs when beliefs or assumptions are contradicted by new information”.


As I said earlier, I first heard rumours that Savile was a pedophile in the 1980s. I was working as a magazine journalist, for a company based in Scotland. A Scottish freelance photographer who was based in London used to visit our offices regularly to discuss his commissions. He liked to impress us with the latest celebrity gossip – presumably to give the impression that he was hanging out with the stars.

This was decades before the advent of social media, and even the tabloid newspapers didn’t carry as much celebrity gossip as they do today.

One of the rumours that this photographer told us was: “That Jimmy Savile’s a pedo.” He muttered about it in a tone of disgust.

It was hard to believe that Jimmy Savile, who did so much for charity, could have such a dark side – though at the same time, Savile wasn’t the kind of person that you’d describe as warm and cuddly. He always seemed a bit odd.

I was quite shocked by it, and told friends and family: “Did you know that Jimmy Savile is a pedophile?”

Not one of them believed me. They dismissed the idea out of hand. I remember my dad saying, “Jimmy Savile is a good man. He does an enormous amount of charity work. You shouldn’t believe scurrilous rumours.”

Jimmy Savile at the Leeds Marathon in 1982. Photo by William Starkey.

That was how most people seemed to see it. The man did charity work, and you could “just tell” that he was a good person from his public persona – even if he was a bit odd. A lovable eccentric – that’s how most people saw Jimmy Savile in the 1980s and 90s.

Eventually I stopped believing the rumours myself – in fact, I forgot all about them. I did such a good job of forgetting these rumours, that years later I just had a vague sense that there was something unsavoury about Savile – but I couldn’t remember exactly what.

It’s also likely that many of the victims of Savile’s abuse were simply not believed. This is the real tragedy.


A few years ago, I attended a reunion of my former work colleagues. A group of us were chatting together, and someone mentioned that the photographer who had told us about the rumours all those years ago had recently died.

We started talking about him, and about some of the gossipy stories he used to tell us – including the Savile rumours.

Suddenly it all came back to me. I remembered that photographer telling us that Jimmy Savile was a pedophile, all those years ago. Most of us had believed him. I think journalists get more insight into the reality of celebrity behaviour than other people. But my friends and family who were not journalists had simply dismissed the idea. They were completely taken in by the public image of the man, fooled by his “good works”.

This is cognitive dissonance in action.


It wasn’t until a television documentary broadcast the revelations that the rumours, which had been resurfacing over the past three or four decades, achieved widespread public acceptance.

This is of crucial importance. Many people will not believe something to be true, unless it’s told to them by an “authority figure”. An “authority figure” can be a teacher, a peer-reviewed scientist, a newspaper journalist, or someone on the television, wearing a suit. A few decades ago, that person on the TV would have had to be a man.

Many of us unwittingly look on TV as a voice of authority. Image by Vidmir Raic.

Television is still seen as a central voice of authority – probably by most people. This is what makes it a good vehicle for propaganda – and potentially, for covering up certain atrocities, as the Jimmy Savile episode shows us.

It’s the reason why there is so much discussion of “fake news” these days. Television, and the mainstream media, are rapidly losing that position of authority, and they are desperately trying to hold onto it.

They are not alone. Politicians have lost a lot of credibility in recent years. In my opinion they have no one but themselves to blame! It’s a good thing that people are becoming more questioning on many issues, instead of blindly accepting the “voice of authority”.

The Jimmy Savile episode highlights the dangers of this type of cognitive dissonance. Savile and his vile activities were directly and indirectly assisted by the TV industry. How could his professional associates have been unaware of what was going on, when rumours of it even reached me up in Scotland?

This thought often chills me to the bone, and makes me wonder what kind of horrors are being covered up today with the assistance of cognitive dissonance.


Main image by JakePaulshop.