Operation Yewtree: putting the past on trial

The Savile scandal has become a trawl for celebrity sexual abuse in the 1960s and 1970s that reads history backwards.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics UK

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Are we all necrophiliacs now? Among the many accusations levelled against the evidently vile Jimmy Savile has been the unsubstantiated suggestion that, along with the living, the late DJ and TV personality may have sexually abused dead bodies in hospital morgues. To judge from the way that the ever-expanding Savile scandal has gripped the media, politicians and the police, he may not be the only one with an apparent unhealthy interest in messing with what is dead and buried today. It looks increasingly like a strange exercise in putting the past on trial.

The huge police investigation into the Savile scandal is, we are told, pursuing three lines of inquiry: offences involving Savile; those involving Savile and others; and those involving simply ‘others’. Last week, the police and the NSPCC published their joint report into the first strand. In many ways, this appears the least contentious. There seems little doubt that Savile was a serious sexual abuser of mainly young people over many years. Yet even here, there are questions that have hardly been asked.

Perhaps the biggest question is ‘why now?’. There also ought to be questions raised about the way that the evidence against Savile has been treated. It is clear from the police report that every allegation of abuse has been treated by the authorities as if it were proof of a criminal offence. That might be widely seen as right in this case; nobody could suggest that Savile was innocent. Yet as former Telegraph editor Charles Moore has been one of the few to point out, this approach has potentially dangerous consequences for the system of justice. As Moore says, the assumption that every complainant of abuse must always automatically be believed, regardless of whether there is any corroborative evidence, is really no better than the alternative extreme of dismissing their allegations out of hand.

Indeed, some of us have always assumed that under a just system the accused must always be given the benefit of the doubt until it is proven otherwise; that, after all, is the basis of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. There is a risk now of rewriting the rules of the criminal-justice system on the back of the wave of disgust about Savile, which has created an atmosphere in which commentators feel free to refer to him as a ‘murderer’ despite not being accused of killing anybody.

What should arguably be more contentious is the expanding third strand of Operation Yewtree – the investigation into ‘others’ accused of abuse, mainly ageing celebrities from the Sixties and Seventies. This has nothing to do with Savile. Instead, the investigation into his offences, sparked by a TV programme, has become the pretext for the police to launch a nationwide trawling operation: not investigating known crimes, but asking for anybody who claims to have been abused by a public figure in the distant past to come forward. A quick glance at history should suggest that such trawling operations always have the potential to create problems.

In this case, the third strand of Operation Yewtree looks increasingly like an exercise in putting the sexual mores of the past on trial. And finding a decade such as the 1970s summarily guilty of failing to abide by the rules of the 21st century.

It appears that any old-time celebrity who was sexually active in the Seventies is now under suspicion. Some are now being arrested amid a blaze of publicity for doing things in their younger days which would not have been considered crimes at the time. So the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis was recently arrested and bailed for allegedly, as he put it, ‘squeezing a couple of women’s boobs’ in the 1970s. Similarly, the comedian Jim Davidson was arrested on arrival at Heathrow Airport this month, as if he were a terror suspect, over allegations that he ‘groped’ two women who were then in their twenties some 25 years ago. Both men deny the allegations. Nobody needs to approve of groping or uninvited boob-squeezing to see the problem with the retrospective reinterpretation of such things as serious criminal offences.

What is this all about? It seems we are living under a culture that has become obsessed with unearthing and reinvestigating the alleged crimes of our yesterdays. A society that is uncertain of the present and fearful of its future seems increasingly inclined to search for causes and solutions in the past.

In this light, the celebrity abuse trawling operation looks less like the normal pursuit of criminals than a nationwide therapeutic exercise. In recent years, the fashionable notion has taken hold that experiences in childhood – especially bad or abusive experiences – must shape an individual’s entire life and can explain the problems of adulthood. Now we appear to be witnessing a sort of society-wide version of this therapeutic determinism. The underlying assumption seems to be that the problems of the present, from the alleged though largely invisible ‘epidemic’ of child abuse to the crisis of the BBC, can be explained by investigating the past.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying and reassessing the past – spiked does that all the time. But this is something different – an exercise in reading history backwards, and judging the past by the standards of today. Such an exercise seems as bizarre as it is pointless. The authorities might as well start arresting the politicians and journalists of the 1960s and 70s for breaking today’s censorious laws against using racially offensive language.

The fact remains that, as LP Hartley says at the start of his 1950s novel The Go Between: ‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’ The 1970s were not like the 2010s. Relations between men and women were different and far less equal. Attitudes to sex were also different. The writer Julie Burchill recently noted that she and her teenage mates often used to discuss which pop stars and celebrities they would like to have. Even the magician Paul Daniels, hardly a heart-throb, has recently discussed how readily available young women were to TV stars. No doubt these more free-and-easy attitudes created problems for some. But they did not mean everybody sexually active was an abuser or a victim. (Many of us had a rather less exciting experience of the Seventies. I was a teen in suburban Surrey; as our local heroes The Jam recently recalled, the sexual revolution never really reached Woking…)

Today, however, it seems that we can only view the past as a hell-hole, a kind of societal concentration camp. This marks a striking change in a country such as Britain, which has always been so proud of its history and traditions. Now by contrast, the past is being reinterpreted as the bad old days of suffering. Even the much-admired opening ceremony at the London Olympics broadcast a damning image of the industry and empire that were once the UK’s proudest boasts. It seems easier to seek comfort in blaming the abuses of the past for today’s troubles rather than face the future.

Two other points about the ‘others’ strand of Operation Yewtree are perhaps worth noting in passing. One is that, as the commentator Victoria Coren has noted, no famous faces from the past who are still considered ‘cool’ today have been arrested. Instead, it appears that only the ‘dinosaurs’ and cheesy characters who are firmly rooted in the Seventies – such as DLT, Davidson, Gary Glitter and Freddie Starr – are under investigation. Maybe the rock stars and footballers of those days really did not have sex with young groupies, but it seems unlikely. When the Rolling Stones played their much-lauded fiftieth-anniversary gigs recently, their former bassist Bill Wyman appeared on stage to share the adulation. Wyman was also famous for marrying Mandy Smith in the 1980s, who now says she was 14 when the 48-year old Wyman first took her to bed.

The other thing worth noting is that some public figures who have complained about Operation Yewtree have subsequently been arrested themselves. Last October, as the Savile scandal started to escalate, Jim Davidson told the Sun that the inquiry was running out of control: ‘There’s a witch-hunt, it’s mad. Who’s next in the frame?’ After his arrest earlier this month, Davidson told the same paper ‘I know I said that, but the last thing I thought was that I’d be next.’ The PR guru Max Clifford also spoke out early in the inquiry, noting that many of his older celebrity clients were panicking because they had lived ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles in the 1970s. Shortly afterwards, Clifford was also arrested on suspicion of abuse.

It remains important, however, to raise questions about Operation Yewtree and, in particular, the ‘others’ strand of the investigation. To do so is not to suggest that some celebrities and public figures were not guilty of abuse in the past. It is to question the motives for making such a major issue of alleged historical groping and boob-squeezing today. Might it just be that the police and the authorities, having been accused of not taking sexual abuse by the likes of Savile seriously in the past, are now bending the stick the other way to improve their image? It looks like the same sort of PR policing that has seen the police respond to criticisms of their past relations with the press by launching a witch-hunt against tabloid journalists.

The ultimate question is: who benefits from any of this digging up of the past? Apart from the lawyers now pursuing compensation claims against Savile’s estate, the BBC, the NHS and others, it is hard to see what good it will do anybody in the end.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His new book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics UK


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