I wrote a few weeks ago about the strange antics of the press regarding Operation Yewtree, and the way in which the publication of the names of those being questioned and arrested seemed to depend on the public perception of the accused.
So the press had no scruples in announcing the questioning of people like Jim Davidson, Max Clifford, Dave Lee Travis and Gary Glitter – they are not, for various reasons, believed to be universally loved by the British public.
Last month the arrest of an 82 year old man, who shortly thereafter became an 83 year old man seemed to indicate that the media were, to some extent, “judging” whose arrests should be publicised.
As the Sun reveals today, in a front page ludicrously labelled “World Exclusive”, Rolf Harris is the 83 year old who has been arrested.
As a result of the Sun breaking “omerta” the rest of the media has rushed to follow suit.
I have no doubt that media organisations knew about Mr Harris being questioned last year, and being arrested last month. After all Guido Fawkes on his blog broke the story of the investigation last year! Based on the number of his stories which then pop up in the mainstream media, the press knew about Mr Harris, even if only from reading Guido!
So why reveal the story now?
Was it a slow news day for the Sun?
What has happened in the last 24 hours to make it a front page splash today, rather than yesterday or tomorrow?
The Sun report even says that the media have been camped outside Mr Harris’ home since last month.
Mr Harris is said to be denying any wrongdoing.
As I mentioned in my last piece, I have a horrible fear that the Savile/Yewtree investigations will have dreadful effects on the lives of innocent people. Clearly anyone who can be proved to have committed crimes should be dealt with by the judicial system.
However Operation Yewtree seems to be acting as a fog enveloping anyone it touches in the same allegations as those made against Sir Jimmy Savile. As he is now deceased, these will never be proved beyond reasonable doubt in a court, but the various investigations into his alleged behaviour over many years suggest most strongly that he was guilty.
The accusations against him are repellent and disgusting, amounting in many of the cases to evil abuse of power over some of the weakest in society. Such offences should be condemned.
But “Yewtree” is not just an investigation into the Savile offences. There are three strands to the enquiry. The first is directly related to Savile. The second covers “Savile and others”. These are entirely properly seen as part of the Savile investigations – because they are.
The third strand is the concerning one, I think.
This is described as covering “complaints against other people unconnected to the Savile investigations, made by people who came forward after widespread coverage of the scandal.”
The Daily Mail today headlines its online piece with the statement that Mr Harris has been “outed” as a “historic sex abuse suspect quizzed by Jimmy Savile detectives”. That is factually true. The detectives who have spoken to him are part of Operation Yewtree – the Savile investigation.
But as he is part of the third strand of enquiries, it seems first of all that Mr Harris is not implicated in any of Savile’s actions and secondly, in the absence of any detail about the allegations, there is not the slightest indication that Mr Harris’s alleged offence or offences are of the same nature as those of the deceased DJ.
But, I suspect, from now on people will think ill of Mr Harris in a similar way to that of Savile. Should he, or anyone else, be guilty of similar offences to those committed by Savile, then let the law take its course.
But if he is the victim of a malicious allegation, for example, or the allegation of some seemingly trivial offence which might not even have been viewed as such at the time it is alleged to have occurred, then surely something in the way these matters are being investigated, publicised and reported is wrong. (I do not mean to suggest by the way, that just because some things might have been seen as “acceptable” some years ago, they could not have amounted to a crime. However, even in such areas as these, there is a vast difference in scale between the various offences which can fall under the heading of “sexual abuse”. An accusation, for example, of one drunken grope of an adult many years ago is nowhere near the same level as repeated allegations of violent abuse of the under-age and vulnerable. [Equally, I am not saying that the “drunken grope” is not a criminal offence or that the victim of it might not have suffered as a result, but if, as I have read some commentators say, all sexual abuse is equally bad, then that simply downgrades the seriousness of the most heinous crimes.])
And tucked away at the end of the Daily Mail piece is a section which is chilling, I think, when it comes to viewing how the police, prosecuting authorities and media deal with matters like this where the reputations of innocent people are at stake.
Detectives believe there will be insufficient evidence to prosecute the vast majority of the 11 suspects questioned under Operation Yewtree, a national probe prompted by allegations that emerged against Savile
Details of the small number of Yewtree prosecutions emerged a day after a former BBC producer was released without charge after being arrested over an alleged sex assault in 1965.
Wilfred De’ath, 75, who spent four months on bail before being cleared, accused police of being ‘over-zealous’ because they had failed ‘lamentably’ to stop Savile’s reign of terror while he was still alive.
Before a suspect is arrested, surely there requires to be some evidence against them? I will not speak about the English situation, as the rules there are different, but In Scotland the law makes clear that an arrest comes at a point where there is reasonable cause to believe that the accused has committed an offence – that involves there being some form of evidence!
It is not a case, at least formally, that a suspect can be arrested and questioned in the hope that they confess, although a confession always makes a prosecution easier. That is why, in Scotland anyway, we have detention – a period prior to arrest when the suspect can be questioned, effectively as part of the information gathering process.
I remember some years ago Harry Redknapp, the football manager, being arrested in connection with allegations of football corruption. He told the press on leaving the police station that this was routine and that the police could not speak to you without arresting you! Needless to say, Mr Redknapp’s grasp of football is infinitely better than his grasp of the law.
So what happens to Mr Harris and the other “strand three” Yewtree suspects?
What if, in several months, the Crown Prosecution Service announces that there will be no proceedings “due to an insufficiency of evidence”? In the eyes of the law the accused would remain as innocent as they are today, and as they remain, in the eyes of the law, until pronounced guilty by a jury.
In the eyes of many of the public will there not be the thought process as follows regarding any of the accused against whom no proceedings are taken?
- That man was accused of the same crimes as Jimmy Savile (even if there was no similarity at all)
- That man was arrested by the police
- That man has got off because there was not enough evidence
- That means that there was evidence so he has got off through some loophole
- That man is clearly guilty and has got away with it.
There is something to be said for, on occasion, the police, CPS, or in Scotland Crown Office, making clear that, in some cases, there is not going to be a prosecution simply because there is no case at all, and the inquiry in fact shows that the person is innocent.
It is a very narrow tightrope to cross however, as stating that the accused is innocent impliedly impugns the accuser. In a country where the publicity suggests, even if the facts do not always agree, that many sex offenders “get away with it” because of a reluctance to report crimes, it would be very difficult for the prosecution to make such a statement, and even more so if, at a later date, convincing evidence of another alleged offence did appear.
I do not have an easy answer to the above problems.
It does strike me, as I commented before, that the press ought to be explaining why it chose to publicise some names and not others – it also strikes me that any of the accused who are innocent have been damaged beyond repair already by the coverage. It also strikes me that the police ought to be explaining why the “third strand” enquiries have been so closely linked to the Savile offences, even where the only connection is that coverage of his crimes prompted the accuser to come forward.
It is all very, very sad.
Posted by Paul McConville