• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Savile inquiry shows that sometimes, there can be smoke without fire

Rolf Harris is only the latest, and arguably most famous, celebrity to be caught up in a police investigation that appears to have acquired a life of its own. It is paralleled by a campaign of fear that relies on social media to casually target its victims.

The destructive consequences of this moral crusade was all too apparent last November, when a network of British commentators wrongly accused Alistair McAlpine of being an abuser of young boys. Rumour-mongering acquired a powerful momentum as different zealots harnessed the anxiety fuelled by press speculation to promote their own agenda. Sadly, the spirit of an inquisitorial crusade also affects the way the police have gone about their investigation.

Operation Yewtree was launched in the wake of media revelations about Savile’s predatory behaviour. It is a police operation with a singularly wide remit. The most accurate way of describing Yewtree is that it is a fishing expedition, designed to catch and record a very large number of allegations of abuse.

In Yewtree’s first report, published in January, the authors indicated they would regard anyone making an allegation as a victim and not a complainant. In effect, this police operation has casually rebranded an unproven allegation as a form of quasi-evidence.

Operation Yewtree is not in the business of solving reported crimes. It is devoted wholly to the task of discovering or constructing sex crimes allegedly committed a very long time ago. Nor is Yewtree confining its investigation to allegations against Savile.

A second strand of its operations is designed to discover sex abuse allegations against “Jimmy Savile and others”. And an all-encompassing third strand of Yewtree throws its net as wide as possible by searching for accusations against people who are entirely unconnected to the Savile sex abuse investigations.

According to newspaper reports, 83-year-old entertainer Harris was arrested under this strand of the Yewtree investigation. In the eyes of many people he is by definition someone who has to prove their innocence.

If Yewtree continues to operate according to its existing procedure it is likely that its investigation into Harris will spawn new inquiries. The police already have announced that British detectives plan to fly to Australia to interview potential witnesses.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the handful of arrests of elderly show business figures by Yewtree, the question worth asking is: what purpose do they serve? Even the police acknowledge that the investigation of historic allegations is neither about fighting nor solving crime.

Such operations are justified on the grounds that by actively soliciting allegations they give voice to the victim. In reality, the main accomplishment of such investigations is to make a moral statement and create the impression that through putting right past wrongs something positive will be achieved in the here and now.

All crimes - no matter how old - are worthy of serious investigation. But there is a difference between a crime reported - 20, 30 or 50 years ago - but not solved and the project of soliciting new allegations about unknown and unreported crimes. Such an operation is likely to incite responses that are likely to have a corrosive effect on society and its system of justice. Such operations do little to exact justice.

It is likely the main accomplishment of Operation Yewtree will be the destruction of reputations. No system of real justice can test the merits of a retrospective allegation made about an individual act of abuse committed more than 40 years ago.

It can be used, however, to make an example and tarnish the name of the accused. The mere act of arresting someone on such a historical allegation is sufficient to call into question the moral status of the individual.

Numerous commentators have raised concerns about the danger of people who have been arrested through Yewtree, but not charged, being tried by the media. Some have called for new regulations that would prevent newspapers from publishing the names of people who have been of interest to the police inquiry.

However, curbing the freedom of the press to publish the names of celebrities targeted by Yewtree is likely to enhance the culture of rumour-mongering.

Joshua Rozenberg, a respected British commentator on legal issues, argues society will have to learn to live with accepting that just because people are arrested and accused of a crime does not mean they are guilty. Rozenberg acknowledges there is a problem, which is that “innocent people are sometimes arrested”. He argues that “it’s for the public to understand that, sometimes, there can be smoke without fire”.

Rozenberg is right to call for the decriminalisation of smoke. However, in the present climate, where there is a powerful campaign to promote the idea that an allegation is not just an unproven statement, but something that must be believed, smoke itself will be interpreted as a marker of guilt.

What we require is a counter-campaign that promotes the idea the injustice done to the abused is not put right by the injustice perpetrated against the falsely accused.

Frank Furedi’s Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan. Order this book from Amazon (UK).

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