Suddenly, after their failure over many years to detect and prosecute Jimmy Savile for his serial abuse of others, the police have taken to investigating historical claims of sex abuse with a vengeance. Now, with each new celebrity accused of assault, a peculiarly public pillorying takes place. An allegation from twenty, thirty, forty years ago is not only listened to but broadcast far and wide.
It’s true that some of these accusations have led to convictions – Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Stuart Hall – because it turned out there was evidence or a consensus of voices that served as corroborative evidence. But equally there have been arrests for activities which aren’t even illegal – Jim Davidson’s threesome with two other consenting adults, for example – and witnesses who are forced unwillingly to provide evidence, as in the Nigel Evans’ case.
Then there are isolated allegations which come with no corroborative evidence, just, perhaps, a date and a location, which are not evidence at all but merely part of the accusation.
Very quickly afterwards, the individual making the allegation is turned – by the police, the media and the CPS – into a ‘victim’, often on no other basis than the uncorroborated accusation. An accuser is not, however, a victim, and the accused is not a perpetrator, unless the courts decide he or she is. Moreover, the accuser has the privilege of remaining anonymous, while the accused celebrity, even if there’s no court case or even an arrest, has their reputation sullied as soon the allegation is made public. Trial by media invariably follows and the accused is seen as guilty by association, because, as we all know, there’s no smoke without fire. (Unless you’re a 1980s politician – in which case the ‘historic’ nature of the supposed offences is sufficient to ensure a prosecution is replaced with an enquiry that won’t report for months, if not years – or a member of the Catholic clergy who, for the most part, have also abused with impunity.)
The latest celebrity to be the focus of police interest is, it can’t have escaped your attention, Cliff Richard. Somehow the singer is expected to demonstrate that he did not sexually assault an under-age ‘boy’ – we haven’t been told his actual age – at a Billy Graham rally on a given date nearly thirty years ago. I don’t know about you but, even though it was my tenth wedding anniversary, I can’t remember a single thing I did on 28th June 1985. And I certainly couldn’t demonstrate it wasn’t something criminal. It wasn’t, but I can’t prove it, because it’s impossible to prove a negative. Could you, if you were accused of it, demonstrate satisfactorily that you didn’t indulge in, and get away with, a little light shoplifting on that date? No, you couldn’t. How then can Cliff Richard prove he didn’t do what he has been accused of doing? He can’t. All he has is denial and his hitherto unblemished character and integrity. While I don’t share his religious views, Cliff is also devout; his faith determines how he lives his life in a way that honours the God he believes in. On this basis, it is hard to imagine him doing anything like the crime he has been accused of. And unless it can be proven he did, then he most emphatically did not.
This is not enough for the police, of course, who have made their investigation of the star a very public affair in the hope that ‘others will come forward’ and make similar accusations. They can then claim they have their corroboration. So far, despite saying they have received ‘many’ calls related to their enquiry, they have not confirmed they have any such corroboration. You can bet your life they would if they had.
The fact the police don’t operate in this manner in any other context should immediately alarm us. Yes, they normally seek witnesses for incidents – an alleged physical attack, say – but what they don’t do is broadcast the names of those involved so that other people might ‘come forward’ with stories about entirely different incidents. So why do they regard it as legitimate to operate like this when a celebrity is accused of sexual impropriety? And why are they allowed to? The goodly folks of 17th century Salem, not to mention Senator McCarthy, would surely approve.
Ah, but what about the victim, I hear you ask. As I’ve already explained, without evidence or corroboration there is no victim. There is only an accuser and an accuser is not the same as a victim. In the States, the statute of limitations restricts the time after an event when legal proceedings may be initiated. For sexual offences, this limit varies according to the nature of the alleged offence and from state to state but it is generally in the region of ten years. This prevents the flood of historical accusations that we have seen in the UK following Savile’s death. I am not advocating that real victims, like those we have seen in some of the other cases, be disregarded, but that there must come a time after which allegations can no longer be made, or if made, acted upon. There is precedence: rightly or wrongly, those suspected of ‘historical’ bombing campaigns in Northern Ireland, bombings that destroyed lives, can no longer be prosecuted. Such a statute would prevent innocent individuals like Cliff Richard (and he is innocent until proven otherwise) from enduring uncorroborated accusation, the sullying of reputation and unnecessary public approbation.
Meanwhile, I plan to get out my Cliff Richard CDs to listen to them until the hounding of the singer is called off, and the police are called to account for the unreasonable way they have handled the sole allegation against him. I hope you’ll be doing the same.
‘Ere, Sarge – another of those reports about wide-scale child abuse on our patch.
Just put it with the others, son. We’ll shred them all later.
Shouldn’t we do something, Sarge?
No son, that’s not the way it works. We’re going after a celebrity instead.
A celebrity? You mean that famous singer?
Yes, son. That’s the one.
But we’ve no evidence he’s done anything, Sarge.
And when has that ever stopped us before?