Operation Yewtree: A Worrying Can-of-Worms

child abuse

I’ve previously commented on The Prolific Growth of the Savil’s Yewtreee but what many don’t consider is how Operation Yewtree has also been instrumental in opening a veritable can-of-worms. Many of which are more insidious and worrying than perhaps even the hideous paedophiles who have subsequently been exposed…

You see it’s not just the ‘worms’ of (alleged) paedophilia in our society but more, the inadequacies of our legal system in providing protection for victims. Add all the opinionated self-interest and social control or commercial desires of our media machine to the mix and you can (partly) understand some of the recent comments from some of our legal profession.

But even the most controversial comments from the likes of Barbara Hewson QC who claimed; the “witch-hunt” against ageing celebrities was reminiscent of the Soviet Union (see here), could also be seen (cynically) as having been offered for self-promoting and/or commercial reasons. So much so that even Ms Hewson’s own chambers quickly distanced themselves from them.

We are shocked by the views expressed in Barbara Hewson’s article in Spiked (8 May 2013). We did not see or approve the article pre-publication and we completely dissociate ourselves from its content and any related views she may have expressed via social media or any other media outlets…(Hardwicke Chambers)

Not without standing the outcomes from the Savile Scandal, or the media furore around the recent admissions of guilt by Stuart Hall and his subsequent conviction; rape investigations are often ‘undermined by belief that false accusations are rife (see here). An important consideration in all of this is that finally, we should be dispelling the rape myths that still abound. But the Savile and Hall outcomes should not be seen as de facto evidence to support the raison d’être of modern media methodology.

There may have been calls to Raise the IQ of Barristers, some of whom (see above) have been accused of being out of touch with society. There has also been many strong arguments around the naming of ‘suspects’ prior to conviction (Silence & Anonymity Do Not Bring Abusers To Justice). Jon Brown, head of strategy and development for sexual abuse at the NSPCC, raised the question – Witch Hunt or Justice for Victims? – when looking at the thoughts/reasoning behind the comments of Hewson. 

I get the arguments which relate to ‘victim confidence’ i.e. their ability to come forward and make a formal complaint; these are mainly offered by the legal profession and child-protection charities such as the NSPCC and Barnardo’s. The ones I struggle with are those arguments around ‘public interest’ and a ‘need’ to know. These are mostly put forward by our media organisations, again (cynically) for commercial reasons perhaps?

Here we go again: …the recent recommendations made by Keir Starmer QC (see here) to make changes to the way child abuse cases are handled and dealt with by the police authorities and the judiciary, are now critical…(Jonathan Wheeler)

Yewtree has been a minefield of opinionated and often self-interested debate around the rights and wrongs of investigative process, legislation and some morality issues but even Ms Hewson’s controversial views on child sex abuse have (surprisingly) had support “flooding in” (see here).

Commenting on the need for a change to sentencing guidelines in child sexual exploitation cases, Cherie Blair QC said; “Child sexual exploitation is an appalling crime that devastates lives, and the legal system in this country has a crucial role in protecting children from such abuse by bringing the perpetrators to justice” (See HERE);

Regardless of how mature a child looks, how they behave or what kind of relationship has been established with the abuser, it must always be the case that victims of sexual exploitation are treated as children and never as willing participants…(Cherie Blair QC)

I don’t think any right-minded person would disagree with any of the above however; my greatest concern here is that of ‘justice’ – for both victims and the accused. To me it seems we are in danger of running headlong into accepting a ‘mob rule’ type of justice. One that is happy to allow trial by media, or even worse social-media, as opposed to the previously accepted concept of innocent until proven guilty and only then within a court of law.

This week North Yorkshire Police have been criticised for failing to release the name of the veteran comedian Jimmy Tarbuck, when he was arrested back in April for alleged Op Yewtree type offences dating from the 1970s.

Freedom of speech campaigners and politicians said North Yorkshire Police’s decision not to report its arrest of veteran comedian Jimmy Tarbuck over an alleged assault on a young boy more than 30 years ago was also “a blow to open justice”…(D&S Tuimes)

While some police forces, including the Metropolitan Police, have announced high-profile arrests in the past, the cynic inside me suggests there may well have been ulterior motives at play. The fact that North Yorkshire Police did not reveal it had questioned Mr Tarbuck on April 26 until asked by journalists, is not a real issue, except for the media. The force actually complied with national guidelines in force at the time.

Critics (mostly media based) have suggested that ‘public confidence’ in policing is being ‘undermined’ by similar actions, or should that be inaction? They’re almost suggesting that police should not only confirm but actually announce the names of suspects in ‘public interest’ cases, as if it were almost a matter of ‘duty’ for police forces.

But where is the divide between ‘public interest’ and pandering to salacious gossip-mongering? Are the police expected to feed so-called ‘investigative journalism’ irrespective of any consequences? Perhaps we should expect this constant media coverage after all; they’re commercial organisations that earn their cash from reporting on things, anything, be it factual or opinionated, they have columns and airtime to fill.

A spokeswoman for freedom of expression campaign group English Pen is reported to have said: “The fundamental issue is about open justice and the great concern is that if this becomes the norm, there will be a worrying secrecy surrounding individuals whose civil liberties could be endangered.” I have to agree with one of the comments to the article;

This is utter nonsense and the media know it, they are playing a game in a desperate attempt to detract from Leveson. And because of their rapidly declining business, want stories handed to them on a plate. It is not the police’s job to name those under arrest. It is the police’s job to gather evidence and ensure a fair trial and justice for victims…(noiretblanc)

I do however agree with Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Commons’ Home Affairs Select Committee, who reportedly said: “It is unacceptable that a suspect living in one area should be treated differently to a suspect in the next postcode.”

That goes without any argument from me, I’m fully supportive of citizens always receiving the same standards from any of our public services (not only justice), no matter where they live in the UK. I also support the principles of ‘open justice’ but I’m struggling a bit with the wording which suggests; an individuals ‘civil liberties’ are somehow undermined when you apply ‘secrecy’ to their identity?

As another commentator to the D&S Times piece said; “What this country needs is a referendum on the laws that allow the media to print speculation” – It appears that irrespective of Leveson we’re still not confident about the methods employed by our media, let alone their culture, practice or ethics, and probably rightly so.

Irrespective of the fact that many ‘suspects’ will  be arrested who haven’t committed any crime, the police will often need the power of arrest to protect the public ad/or effectively carry out thorough investigations into any alleged offence. Each police officer is open to scrutiny (and disciplinary/legal action) should they abuse that power. It also has to be remembered; being arrested is not proof of being guilty.

Whether or not there is any substance in the allegations which suggested, the police may have tipped off the media in some ‘high-profile’ arrests, during Op Yewtree; the role of the police is not to feed the media, it is to protect the public and to prevent and investigate crime.

The police should never act with judgement but that’s also a function which isn’t afforded to our media (as yet), irrespective of how much they would like to think it is!