What has tumbled out in the aftershock of Jimmy Savile’s unmasking as a serial abuser has given pause for thought on many fronts, writes Michael Clifford.
TO lose one MC to arrest for sexual assault was misfortunate, to lose two must have been careless. So it was for Kevin Horkin, the new mayor of the Lancashire town of Clitheroe last month. Originally, Horkin had asked his friend, the actor William Roache to say a few words at his mayoral inauguration. Then Roache, who has played Ken Barlow in Coronation Street for more than 40 years, was arrested on suspicion of raping a woman in 1967.
Into the breach stepped Nigel Evans, high-flying politician, deputy speaker of the House of Commons. Then Davis was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault and rape. Another one bites the dust, and the new mayor must have wondered whether mayoralties always got off to such inauspicious starts.
Roache was since charged with the offence, but Evans hasn’t been charged with anything. Yet, his name is out there, floating across the consciousness of a nation coming to term with a wave of allegations of sexual abuse, assault and general impropriety that has washed across the country in the aftermath of revelations about serial abuser Jimmy Savile.
Neither Evans nor 81-year-old Roache were in any way associated with investigations into “Savile and others“, but their respective cases come at a time of a frenzied activity in which public figures, mainly entertainment celebrities, have been splashed across the front pages associated with crimes for which most haven’t even been charged.
What has tumbled out in the aftershock of Savile’s unmasking has given pause for thought on many fronts. How many celebrities used their power to engage in some form of sexual abuse in the distant past? Why were none ever brought to book? What mores pertained during those years when TV was but a pup? And are the current investigations fair, or are they a PR exercise by a police force tarnished by its inaction against Savile while he was alive?
Since last October, when ITV first aired a programme about Savile’s depraved crimes, a raft of celebrities have been dragged into the harsh glare of a righteous public consciousness.
Initially, as testimonies began to leak out, it looked like the BBC was the one on trial. Time and again, survivors of Savile’s abuse related how it had all happened either within the physical confines of the corporation, or while Savile was performing as one of the corporation’s main stars. The police launched Operation Yewtree, which was aimed at unearthing any allegations against Savile, or any of his fellow celebrities or TV employees who associated with him.
Then the arrests began to scream out from the newsstands and news broadcasts. Nobody was surprised with Gary Glitter. He had form, had served a sentence and had to be ejected from South East Asia after a prison term there for abusing boys.
Then in November, Freddie Starr had his collar felt. Starr is a comedian who’s not terribly funny, and is probably best known for the headline in The Sun from the 1980s. ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’.
Next up was 67-year-old Dave Lee Travis, a BBC disc jockey, whom a generation will remember as a curly-headed chunky presenter who regularly fronted Top Of The Pops. He was followed by a few producers, before 70-year-old Max Clifford was dragged in.
Clifford, the PR man to the stars, always prided himself on managing to keep his clients out of the news, but he couldn’t spin himself free of this one. He hit out at the publicity surrounding his arrest, but a few months later he became one of only two suspects to actually be charged. Next up was another oily comedian, Jim Davidson, living off the faded glory of having been a regular on TV in the 1970s.
The biggest surprise was surely the arrest of Rolf Harris. Yes, Rolf Harris. The genial, slightly gormless 83-year-old Australian was a favourite of the Queen and generations of bug-eyed children glued to TV sets. Tie me kangaroo down sport, and all that.
Last month the latest figure to fall through the floor was another funnyman, Jimmy Tarbuck. He was arrested on foot of info gleaned from Yewtree, but separate to the investigations into those who may have associated with Saville. His arrest was kept secret for 11 days until he was finally, in the great tradition of the tabloids, “outed”.
Last month also saw Stuart Hall caught up in Yewtree, after he pleaded guilty to 14 indecent assaults. Hall was the frontman for the BBC hit show It’s A Knockout in the 1980s, and until recently was also a high-profile football pundit. In total, Operation Yewtree has led to 589 complaints, of which 450 were against Savile. More than a dozen elderly men have been arrested, but only two charged.
Others have been caught up in the fervour. Roache’s arrest had no connection to Yewtree, but the emergence of an allegation from 45 years ago must owe something to the fevered atmosphere abroad. The allegation against Davies is from another planet again, dating from a couple of years ago, rather than a number of decades, but adds to the general feeling that once a thread was pulled in the Savile case, allegations began to fall free into the public domain.
Yet, when, as now seems to be the case, the vast majority of those arrested are not charged, their names are tarnished, possibly irrevocably, on the basis of an allegation that doesn’t merit a charge.
Sexual abuse or sexual assault is a very difficult crime to prosecute at the best of times. Yewtree is largely concerned with historic allegations, which are even more difficult to pursue. But is it correct that these men in their late 60s, 70s and 80s should have their reputations traduced on the basis of an allegation?
Tarbuck’s arrest was kept quiet in an apparent change of direction by the police, but that policy was condemned even within the force. British Transport Police chief constable Andy Trotter said naming those arrested could encourage other potential victims to come forward. This sentiment was echoed by others, including Ian Blair, former commissioner of the Metropolitan police.
Blair said it was in the interests of justice for suspects to be named because the resulting publicity could help uncover vital evidence.
There is little doubt that the naming of a suspect can lead to a domino effect. Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre says that the publicising of an allegation against a specific individual does have such an effect.
“I do agree it has an effect when other victims come forward,” she says. “They think they are the only ones and remain silent. We have seen in this country over the last number of years when any of the reports (into clerical or institutional abuse) were issued there was an escalation in the volume of calls ringing helplines. Before that, victims had thought they wouldn’t be believed.”
But does this mean that it is justifiable to name a suspect against whom there isn’t, certainly at the time of arrest, enough evidence to even bring charges against?
“It really is a dilemma,” O’Malley Dunlop says. “When you see somebody coming forward, it’s a great relief for them. On the face of it, you would say that everybody should be afforded anonymity, certainly at that stage. It is a terrible crime to be accused of. We would support anonymity across the board.”
Maeve Lewis of the One In Four group concurs. “It is a problem,” she says. “The news should not be released to the media until somebody is charged, but it is also true that publicity does encourage survivors to come forward. But there is a responsibility on the media to provide considered coverage and ensure a fair trial is possible.”
In the UK, the broad thrust of opinion appears to be behind naming and shaming suspects. Much of this could be attributed to a backlash that is not dissimilar to that to which the Catholic Church was subjected to in this country over the last few decades.
On a wider front, the public is equally appalled that it had hoisted this serial abuser onto the pedestal of celebrity, while he committed his crimes in a systematic manner.
In such a milieu, every celebrity about whom there is even the faintest whiff of suspicion is hauled out into the public square.
At police level, there is much hand-wringing at the failure to have detected and investigated Savile over the years, despite the periodic surfacing of allegations against him. Now the force appears to be approaching Yewtree with a vigour that some see as going too far.
There is form in the area in the UK. Over ten years ago, allegations of sexual abuse at residential institutions in the North of England led the police to engage in “trawling” for allegations. Operation Rose was conducted by Northumbria police. Once officers had received an allegation against one care worker, they would look up the records to locate former residents and approach them asking whether they had a similar experience. The five-year investigation led to just six convictions from 558 clams of assault, rape and other sexual abuse from 277 former residents of the homes.
Dozens of care workers and professionals complained about how they had been treated, and a Commons Select Committee chaired by Sunderland MP Chris Mullins condemned the practice of trawling. Now some see a similar approach being taken in Operation Yewtree.
The second issue to arise out of Yewtree and the associated inquiries is context. Some of those arrested are alleged to have abused or assaulted children. Others claim that the allegations are of a less serious nature.
The allegation against Freddie Starr was that he groped a 14-year-old in Savile’s dressing room in 1974. Davidson has said that he is accused of something by two women in the 1980s, a time, when, he says, he doesn’t even know who he was married to. (He has had five wives). And Travis claims he is accused of “squeezing the boobs of a couple of women” decades ago. None of the allegations against him, he says, concern children.
If these claims are accurate, then questions must be asked about proportionality and context. The substance of the allegations as claimed above would all merit investigation and prosecution today, but the milieu from which most of the recent allegations arose was a different planet.
While Savile was a serial paedophile, and there may well be others, it’s grossly unfair that all have been effectively bracketed in the same category in the public mind.
Prior to his arrest, Roache gave an interview on New Zealand TV which generated huge controversy for inferring that some victims of abuse brought it on themselves. He did, however, make a point about celebrity and the entertainment business that certainly applies to how things were done up until recent decades.
“There’s a fringe of people, particularly popstars, they have these groupies, these girls, who come, they’re sexually active, sexually mature, they don’t ask for their birth certificate, they don’t know what age they may be. But they’re certainly not grooming them and exploiting them, but they can be caught in this trap.”
This, after all, was a world in which Jerry Lee Lewis could marry his 13-year-old cousin, in which Elvis Presley first had eyes for his eventual wife Priscilla when she was 14, in which Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page first dated Lori Maddox when she was also just 14. Different standards were tolerated in the entertainment world at the time. These mores would, by today’s standards, be considered simply wrong, exploitative, and involve an abuse of power. But the past is a different country, and the did things differently there.
Yet, any suggestion in the UK at the moment that some restraint may be in order is given short shrift. A fortnight ago, human rights barrister Barbara Hewson wrote an opinion piece calling for lowering the age of consent. While that element of her opinion is highly controversial, she also suggested that “touching a 17-year-old’s breast, kissing a 13-year-old or putting one’s hand up a 16-year-old’s skirt” was not remotely comparable to the horrors of some of the abuse scandals that have been uncovered in recent decades.
She went on to write about Stuart Hall’s conviction. “Ordinarily, Hall’s misdemeanours would not be prosecuted, and certainly not decades after the event. What we have here is the manipulation of the British criminal justice system to produce scapegoats on demand. It is a grotesque spectacle.”
She neglected to mention that some of Hall’s victims were reported to be as young as nine when assaulted, or that he had denied the charges vehemently until his trial began. But her article was condemned in its entirety for even questioning the conduct of Yewtree and the associated inquiries.
When the first report into Savile was published last December, it came with the title ‘Giving Victims A Voice’. The brave and heartrending testimonies provided about Savile’s abuse justified such an approach. But questions must be asked about how the inquiries have since been conducted. Is the primary concern the plight of victims of abuse, or conducting a police PR campaign to deflect from the shortcomings of investigations into Savile while he was alive? Has public disgust over Savile led to a backlash in which old men are being trotted out to publicly deal with allegations that don’t even merit prosecution?
Frank Furedi, a UK author and professor of Sociology at the University of Kent, summed up the atmosphere recently when addressing the issue in the online magazine, Spiked.
“When, 50 years from now, historians look back at the extraordinary amount of energy that was devoted in the early 2010s to investigating historical crimes allegedly committed by ageing celebrities, they will be stumped. They will face a serious challenge: how to explain the strange mutation of the UK justice system into a sub-branch of reality TV.”
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