Last week, British DJ Dave Lee Travis was cleared of sexual assault charges brought against him as part of Operation Yewtree, the multi-pronged police investigation into sexual abuse involving Jimmy Savile and others. Two weeks before Travis was let go, Coronation Street actor William Roache, who had been arrested as part of an investigation separate from Yewtree, had been acquitted of all sexual assault charges. Still, these two high-profile cases have finally led several commentators and thoughtful citizens to ask some probing questions about the role and status of Operation Yewtree and the climate of judicial witch-hunts in which it exists
Some of the accused caught up in the Kafkaesque drama of Yewtree have begun to speak out against what they perceive to be acts of vindictive persecution and openly question the moral authority of Yewtree. So the 71-year-old television comic, Freddie Starr, has pledged to bring Operation Yewtree ‘down on its knees’ after his fourth arrest over allegations of historical sex abuse. First arrested in November 2012, Starr is still waiting to be charged by the police. Others, too, are asking questions about what appears to them as serial scapegoating or a ‘celebrity witch-hunt’.
Critics believe that the failure of the prosecutions mounted by Operation Yewtree mean that this initiative will soon be wound down and written off as a failure. But such critics overlook the fact that Yewtree was never simply about investigating and fighting crime. From its inception, Yewtree was more like a propaganda campaign or a moral crusade devoted to the task of sending out an officially sanctioned message.
In the public mind, a criminal inquiry is associated with responding to an unlawful act, investigating the deed, finding the culprit and the necessary evidence required to gain a conviction. From this perspective, a police investigation is connected to the task of fighting crimes reported to official authorities. Operation Yewtree was different: it was not designed to solve reported crimes. Its principal aim, rather, is to construct crimes through soliciting allegations of sexual abuse committed decades and decades ago.
Yewtree, therefore, represents a new trend in the working of the criminal-justice system. Historically, the stated aim of the police was to fight reported crimes and catch the bad guys responsible for committing them. Today, the criminal-justice system has become preoccupied with uncovering crimes that have not been reported. Its point of departure is not the evidence of an actual crime but the conviction that the ‘absence of evidence is not an evidence of absence’. Its metaphor of choice, the ‘tip of the iceberg’, signifies that for Yewtree operatives what’s really important is not what can be seen and known, but what has not been reported.
Sending out a message
One of the most fascinating features of Operation Yewtree is that it self-consciously acknowledges and embraces its mission. That is, it explicitly intends to alter public attitudes and gain a series of symbolic victories over what it perceives to be a peril to the moral order. This approach was clearly spelled out by Yewtree’s lead detective, chief superintendent Keith Niven. Speaking after Travis was cleared of 12 charges of indecent assault, Niven responded to a sceptical press with what amounts to the Yewtree mission statement: ‘We will ensure that all victims have a voice.’
Niven’s choice of words after the botched prosecution of Travis is significant. There was no hint of an apology, no allusion to the possibility that his team might be allowing its fantasies to get the better of them. As far as Niven was concerned, the case against Travis had served its purpose – to ensure that ‘all victims have a voice’. At first sight it is far from clear how the targeting and prosecution of elderly celebrities gives victims a voice. However, a closer inspection of the statements and arguments advanced by Yewtree’s leading figures suggests that what Niven really means is that literally every accusation of abuse will be believed by the police.