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.