We can all think the right things…

Independent on Sunday, 13 July 2014

When Gordon Brown had the chance to appoint Harriet Harman as his deputy, his fine words failed to match his actions

We all believe in equality, don’t we? If you’re on the centre-left, it’s axiomatic that you enthusiastically support equal rights for women, LGBT people and members of the BME community. That’s great, as far as it goes, but I can’t help wondering sometimes whether it means any more than a careful adherence to correct forms of language. It’s not so long since I heard a former Labour MP make a tasteless private joke about domestic violence, and I was shocked by the number of men on the left, including Tony Benn, who rushed to defend Julian Assange when he faced accusations of rape and sexual assault. Sadly, this is a subject where the adage “think left, live right” all too often applies.

Take the case of Gordon Brown, who was savaged last week by Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman. These days Brown is a United Nations special envoy for global education, and he has championed the cause of girls’ education in particular. He has been a vocal supporter of the cause of the Chibok girls, abducted three months ago from their school in north-eastern Nigeria, and met Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan on a recent visit to the country. Earlier this month, during a rare intervention in the Commons, Brown called for British troops to be sent to Nigeria to help in the search for the girls. He spoke forthrightly about “the battle between the girls of the world and backward-looking extremists” and highlighted the opportunities that should be “every girl’s birthright”.

So, what did Brown actually do when he had his own opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling? Unlike the Conservatives, who can at least lay claim to Margaret Thatcher, the Labour Party has yet to produce its first woman prime minister. It hasn’t even produced a female deputy prime minister, a failure which lies entirely at Brown’s door. In 2007, when Brown succeeded Blair as Labour leader and PM, he had an open goal in front of him. Harman had just won a close contest to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader and she expected, quite reasonably, that she would be made deputy prime minister. She was not, and the role remained vacant for the whole of Brown’s premiership. I was outraged, not just for her but for the wider cause of women in public life.

It has taken seven years for Harman to say how she felt about being sidelined, and even then she did not name her former boss directly. “Imagine my surprise when having won a hard-fought election to succeed John Prescott as deputy leader of the Labour Party, I discovered that I was not to succeed him as deputy prime minister,” she said on Tuesday. She asked her audience to imagine what would have happened if the same thing had happened to a man, doubting whether he would have put up with it.

I’m sure she’s right. Despite the slogan of those old L’Oreal ads – “Because I’m worth it” – women are conditioned not to big themselves up in public. Sadly, a similar reticence does not affect many men who go into public life; the only MP in living memory to express doubts about their suitability for a job was Estelle Morris, who resigned as education secretary in 2002. Self-doubt, fear of appearing ambitious and a thin skin combine to hold many women back, not just in politics, but the stakes in Parliament are much higher.

Women don’t make up even a quarter of MPs and Harman was right to say that British politics has a long way to go before it is representative of society in terms of women, race and class. Everyone knows that the Conservatives have a problem with all these issues. What’s shocking is that the centre-left parties have so much more to do if they are to match their rhetoric with action.

Labour has been selecting candidates for next year’s general election and so far, hardly any women have been chosen in “open” selections; the party still depends on all-women shortlists to increase its share of female MPs.

To be fair to Labour, the Liberal Democrats’ record on gender is much worse, with so few female MPs on its benches that the imbalance has become a standing joke. The party also has a shameful record of failing to support women who complain about sexual misconduct; it took five years for a former Lib Dem MP, Mike Hancock, to apologise to a female constituent and acknowledge that he had made her feel “degraded” and “uncomfortable”.

I’m convinced that some men in both parties suffer from a disconnect between what they say and what they do, apparently not realising that all that stuff about equality actually applies to them. Untested assumptions about gender, race and class have a profound impact on politics, and I wish that Harman had gone public about her own exclusion back in 2007. I can see why she didn’t: loyalty to the leader is expected of women in the party, and she would have understood the likely consequences of speaking out. Sure enough, some commentators launched distasteful personal attacks last week, implying that she wasn’t up to the job – a test that would rule out many male candidates for high office if strictly applied.

The idea that Harman was any less qualified than Prescott is risible, but the sneer will have a chilling effect on other ambitious women. Politicians should remember that sometimes actions speak louder than words: Brown’s campaigning for girls’ education is welcome, but the symbolic act of appointing the UK’s first female deputy prime minister was in his gift. And he bottled it

Will the press ever be able to restore public confidence?

Independent on Sunday, 6 July 2014 

The trials of Andy Coulson and Rolf Harris reveal a celebrity-obsessed culture in which we are all complicit

A couple of days ago, on the hottest day of the year so far, two men set off for court in the knowledge that they were going to spend the night in prison. Andy Coulson headed for the Old Bailey while Rolf Harris Rolf Harris’s destination was Southwark Crown Court, where dozens of reporters, photographers and camera crews waited in blazing sunshine to record the latest chapter in these very public disgraces. Seldom has the criminal justice system had to deal with two such high-profile defendants on the same day, involving behaviour which is very different – criminal intrusion in one case, sexual offences in the other – but over-steps important boundaries in a civilised society.

Apart from an accident of timing, what links these two cases is power. In any society, there is always a danger that institutions or individuals will acquire too much, and the criminal justice system is a last resort when other checks and balances have failed. Harris’s power derived from his celebrity, which he ruthlessly exploited to get access to girls as young as seven. Coulson’s came with his position as editor of one of the country’s biggest-selling newspapers, the News of the World. Even though he left the paper under a cloud, his power and connections were so important that he was able to get a job as David Cameron’s director of communications and accompany him into Downing Street.

In a situation where ironies abound, two are striking. First, as the judge who sentenced Coulson pointed out, the NOTW’s fearless seekers after truth failed to subject their own conduct to even the most cursory scrutiny. Second, the paper’s hypocritical attitude to celebrity – obsessive, censorious and fawning by turns – encouraged an atmosphere in which a favoured few believed they were beyond the law. It was clear long before the phone hacking scandal broke that the NoW was going after easy targets; under the editorship of Rebekah Brooks, who has been cleared of any knowledge of hacking, it published the names and photographs of men who had been convicted of abusing children. But it did not publish a squeak about Harris, the TV presenter Stuart Hall (now in prison after being convicted of a series of sex attacks on girls as young as nine) or indeed Jimmy Savile, who counted Margaret Thatcher and the Prince of Wales among his friends. In that sense, the paper wielded the power of a playground bully, ready to retreat as soon as a bigger boy faced it down.

Both these trials provide an opportunity to think about values. The tabloid obsession with celebrity and private life has had dire outcomes, not just for victims of intrusion but for the reputation of the press. Right now it could hardly be lower, a fact reflected in Richard Bean’s mordant farce Great Britain, which opened on London’s South Bank last week. Bean’s characters, many of whom work on a popular paper ironically called The Free Press, are a caricature but close enough to reality to draw knowing laughs from the audience. What is at stake in the aftermath of the hacking scandal isn’t the freedom of the press, but the urgent necessity to restore confidence in journalism, the police and politicians.

Ordinary people don’t like the closeness between powerful editors and politicians, a relationship I have compared to that between mafia bosses and restaurant owners who pay them protection money. In the past, readers could claim they didn’t know about some of the underhand methods mass circulation papers used to get stories. Now they do, whether it’s using shady private detectives or bullying celebrities and grieving relatives into talking to them against their will. If readers go on buying papers with this knowledge, they have to ask themselves about their own role in the ethical failures of the industry. We are not merely passive consumers of the culture we live in, and it is hypocritical to consume sensational stories about famous people and then complain about celebrity culture.

What is also clear is that if vulnerable people are to be protected from the excesses of a ferocious, commercially-driven newspaper culture, there has to be a proper system of redress. We’ve never had that in this country, where repeated scandals have resulted in the press inventing new names for regulators which don’t do their job. The latest incarnation is the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which is so far from complying with the recommendations of Lord Justice Leveson as to feel like powerful editors sticking up two fingers at his inquiry. Victims of intrusion are willing to accept self-regulation, but only if there is a system of independent audit to ensure that the regulator actually does its job.

On Friday evening, as I watched Great Britain from the packed stalls at the National Theatre, I couldn’t help reflecting that Coulson and two of his former colleagues were spending their first night in prison. I don’t take any pleasure in seeing journalists go to jail, but the fact that the criminal justice system has had to intervene in the affairs of a national newspaper is a signal of how bad things had become.

The phone hacking scandal has become part of our national conversation. More trials are to come, and last week’s sentences are far the end of the matter. Politicians, journalists, police and the public need to think about the connections which brought it about, and how to ensure that in future we don’t just pay lip service to the values we all profess to believe in.

Joan Smith is executive director of ‘Hacked Off’

The Rolf Harris conviction is a vindication of Operation Yewtree


The Guardian, Tuesday 1 July 2014

The police investigation into historic sexual abuse was labelled a witch-hunt. But now, thankfully, the message is clear: no one is above the law

It would have been unthinkable just two years ago. That lovable TV personality Rolf Harris, epitome of the amiable Aussie entertainer, exposed as a serial sex offender? Yet that has just happened at Southwark crown court, where Harris has been convicted on 12 counts of sexual assault. During his trial, the 84-year-old was described by the prosecutor as a “sinister pervert” who targeted his own daughter’s best friend. Harris will now join two other public figures, the TV presenter Stuart Hall and the publicist Max Clifford, in prison.

The Clifford and Harris verdicts are a vindication of Operation Yewtree, the Metropolitan police inquiry launched in October 2012 when the crimes of Jimmy Savile came to light. The trials and convictions of Hall, 84, were not part of Yewtree although one of his victims decided to contact a journalist after she read about Savile’s attacks on girls. Only last week, a damning series of reports revealed the extent of Savile’s predation on vulnerable people in hospitals.

Savile’s criminal career emerged in an ITV documentary in 2012, just under a year after his death at the age of 84. He never had to face his accusers in court but the scale of his abuse – the final Yewtree report on Savile identified 450 victims – has had a seismic effect on the way victims, senior police officers and prosecutors think about sexual violence. Across the country, rape crisis centres and refuges report big increases in the number of calls from women and girls who have experienced sexual assault or rape. And while the rape conviction rate dropped last year after showing a steady increase for five years, it is striking that senior police officers and prosecutors are now prepared to go after men like Clifford, 71, who previously considered themselves untouchable.

Senior officers talk privately about the impact of interviewing hundreds of Savile’s victims, which has challenged many of their pre-existing ideas about sexual violence. Hundreds of women (and some men) who didn’t know each other told remarkably similar stories of abuse by the TV presenter, exposing the way in which a confident criminal was able to operate virtually in plain sight. They came forward not to see their abuser in court, given that Savile was dead, but because they wanted to tell their stories and be believed. Senior officers say these are lessons they have taken to heart, pointing to a 19% rise in rape prosecutions in London last year.

Operation Yewtree is still carrying out inquiries. To date, 17 people have been arrested in all; five have been charged; several are on police bail; and the rest will face no further action. Another former Radio 1 DJ, Dave Lee Travis, 68, was cleared of 12 charges of indecent assault in February, while the jury was unable to agree on two more; he has since been charged with another count of indecent assault and faces a second trial later this year.

These developments have not been universally popular. When Yewtree was set up, there was an immediate attempt to characterise it as a witch-hunt of elderly celebrities. First out of the traps was Clifford, who claimed he was getting anxious phone calls from men who feared their reputations would be damaged merely because they knew Savile in the 1960s. Clifford insisted that the entertainers in question were innocent but he then indulged in a classic piece of victim-blaming, talking about teenage girls bursting into stars’ dressing rooms. “It was the girls who were coming on to them,” he insisted.

The witch-hunt accusation was also levelled at Yewtree by the film-maker Terry Gilliam, the TV presenter Chris Tarrant (who have never been suspects) and the comedian Freddie Starr. Starr, 71, who was arrested four times in relation to historical allegations before being told he would face no further action, raged against police and prosecutors and vowed to bring Operation Yewtree “down on its knees”.

Although not directly connected, the Yewtree arrests have been linked in the public mind with the trials of two Coronation Street stars, Michael Le Vell and William Roache, who were both cleared of sexual offences. For a time, it looked as if public opinion, initially outraged by the Savile revelations, was swinging in the opposite direction.

Prosecuting offences which are alleged to have taken place 30 or 40 years ago is not easy. These are cases where there is no physical evidence, while memories of dates and times are bound to be imperfect in some instances. The risks associated with charging men such as Clifford were always apparent, even if his hubris – mocking a TV journalist who was reporting on the case outside the court – worked against him. So did the fact that the prosecution in each case was able to show a pattern of behaviour, turning the defendants’ modus operandi against them.

When Clifford was sent to prison for eight years, the judge said he had groomed and degraded his victims, aged 15 to 19; he observed that some of the offences were so serious that they would be charged as rape if they happened today. Harris’s victims were even younger, with two counts relating to girls aged 14 and either seven or eight at the time they were assaulted. The Clifford verdict sent shockwaves through the ranks of his famous clients, not to mention the tabloid journalists who had used him as a source of celebrity gossip for many years. Harris’s conviction is just as startling, but it is also a reminder that Yewtree is not just a fishing expedition. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Alison Saunders, has warned perpetrators that they should not consider themselves beyond the reach of the criminal justice system: “Nobody is immune, nobody is above the law and it doesn’t matter when things happened, we will prosecute when we have the evidence to do so.”

The Harris conviction is undeniably a blow against impunity for sex offenders, no matter how famous or elderly they happen to be. But the furore over Operation Yewtree suggests that the criminal justice system may be ahead of public opinion on the question of sexual abuse and rape.

Jimmy Savile’s crimes are rooted in pirate radio

Independent on Sunday, 29 June 2014

John Peel was allowed to run a ‘schoolgirl of the year’ competition on his late night show

Five years ago, Richard Curtis made a film called The Boat That Rocked about the pirate radio stations that broadcast pop music to the UK in the 1960s from ships moored offshore. Unusually for Curtis, the film was a box-office flop despite an ensemble cast which included Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans. At the time I thought the project was wrong-headed, presenting an uncritical view of a pop culture which was sexually predatory and fuelled by testosterone. Against the background of the latest revelations about Jimmy Savile, its infatuation with the sexual antics of 1960s DJs is even harder to comprehend.

After last week’s shocking reports, commentators are asking how on earth Savile gained access to vulnerable patients in a series of National Health Service hospitals. The naivety of hospital bosses in allowing this creepy narcissist to roam their corridors unchecked is breathtaking, but it is a story which goes back to the beginning of celebrity culture in the 1960s. Savile’s only “qualification” to work in the NHS was the fame suddenly attaching to DJs who had access to the biggest names in pop music. He first worked for the BBC in 1964, when he presented the very first edition of Top of the Pops; footage from 1976 shows him committing a brazen assault on a young female member of the ToTP audience while they were on camera.

The BBC’s bemused involvement with pop culture accelerated in 1967 when the Labour government closed down pirate radio and demanded the corporation set up Radio 1 to fill the gap. This was the moment when the BBC, which had previously been sniffy about pop music, embraced a phenomenon it had neither anticipated nor understood. Savile did not work on offshore pirate stations, coming to Radio 1 a year later from Radio Luxembourg, but many of the DJs who launched the new BBC station did.

In this all-male environment – there were no women among them until Annie Nightingale joined in 1970 – sexist attitudes were commonplace, which the BBC did nothing to challenge. It even allowed John Peel, who arrived at Radio 1 from pirate station Radio London, to run a “schoolgirl of the year” competition on his late-night show.

Did the BBC know nothing about the predatory atmosphere on the ships where so many of its new stars had been employed? Here is former Radio 1 DJ Johnnie Walker describing how women were treated on Radio Caroline, widely believed to have been the model used for The Boat That Rocked: “So girls used to come to the ship and we’d tie their boat alongside and we used to get the engineer to take their boyfriends to look round the transmitters … and we’d take them downstairs to the cabins.” Peel put his finger on the BBC’s failure to think about what it might be importing when he recalled how he got his own job: “I was one of the first lot on Radio 1 and I think it was mainly because … Radio 1 had no real idea what they were doing so they had to take people off the pirate ships.”

If Peel were still alive, it is hard to believe that he would not be a person of interest to Operation Yewtree, the police investigation into Savile and others. In 1965, when he was in his late twenties and working on a radio station in Dallas, Peel married a 15-year-old girl; the marriage was legal in Texas but would have broken the law in other American states. Later, he boasted in interviews about teenage girls in the US queuing to offer sex to their favourite DJs, making the distasteful claim that one of his “regulars” was just 13. Shortly after the Savile scandal broke, a British woman claimed that she became pregnant by Peel in 1969 at the age of 15 after having sex with him in his BBC studio.

Others of Peel’s former colleagues at Radio 1 have attracted the attention of Operation Yewtree. One of the station’s original DJs, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was convicted years ago, and suspicion continues to hang over others, who again cannot be named for legal reasons. This is not to make presumptions about the guilt or innocence of individuals in any trial that may yet take place. It is about an abrupt cultural shift in the 1960s, when the rules governing sexual conduct were relaxed in a way which gave unparalleled licence to well-known men. Feminists have understood this for years: under-age sex was just as much a criminal offence in 1968, when the Rolling Stones fantasised about having sex with a 15-year-old girl in “Stray Cat Blues”, as it is in 2014.

For a time, however, one stuffy British institution after another fell under the spell of men who had made their names in the brash new entertainment industry. It all began at the BBC, which opened doors elsewhere – hospitals, the police, even Downing Street – for Savile. This weekend his offending in the NHS is rightly in the spotlight, but the corporation bears a heavy responsibility for the monster it created.