The very public police raid on Cliff Richard’s home was a grotesque example of the pernicious inquisitorial spirit at the heart of today’s historic investigations of child abuse. The entire event was carefully stage-managed by the BBC and the police for the edification of the British public. The South Yorkshire police performed this piece of reality TV in the full knowledge that Richard was abroad on holiday. They could have organised their spectacle when the former pop star was at home – but no, they decided their actions would have a more dramatic impact if they had the whole stage to themselves. For them, what really mattered was that the live performance enacted at Richard’s home got as much media publicity as possible.
This manipulative ‘reality-policing’ is fundamentally about impression management, about sending a message about the police. It has nothing to do with fighting or solving crime, whether present-day crimes or past ones. Rather, it is a form of visual entertainment which preys on the public’s sense of insecurity and seeks to channel our anxiety into an obsession with the omnipresent paedophile. So it isn’t surprising that this raid was executed with the collaboration of Britain’s main broadcaster, the BBC. The cameras were already rolling when the five police cars arrived. The helicopters hovering above helped to give the impression that this was serious business, on a par with busting a Colombian drug baron or arresting a serial killer.
It is worth noting that the intrepid investigative journalists of the British media did not stop to ask one simple question: why were so many police being sent to raid an empty house? All that was necessary was for a couple of near-retired coppers to pop over and kick open the door for a look around. But reality-policing works in a very different way to genuine attempts to solve crime. The amount of police resources devoted to media-led investigations is always inversely proportional to the seriousness of what is being investigated.
In the real world of crime-solving, police raids are usually aimed at discovering something real and tangible that will help crack a case. In the sphere of reality-policing, in contrast, the search itself is the important thing, the most symbolically significant element. It was very obvious that the police raid on Richard’s home was not about finding evidence that might link Richard to the allegation of sexual assault made against him. After all, that allegation concerns something that allegedly happened a quarter of a century ago, very far from Richard’s current home. What could the police possibly have been looking for in relation to that allegation?
There was a time when the criminal-justice system took the issuing of search warrants seriously. Until recently, those who issued search warrants would expect the police to have reasonable grounds to assume that there was material on the premises relevant to the allegation under investigation. Historically, a search warrant was not, at least not formally, the functional equivalent of a fishing licence. Unfortunately, however, in recent years the casting of the fishing net as widely as possible has become the hallmark of policing in cases involving child sexual abuse. And according to this opportunistic ethos, once you become a target of an allegation your rights to due process become a negotiable commodity – search warrants, raids, and so on come far more cheaply than in other investigations.