Can you see what they did yet?

Yes, Rolf Harris should be named. But the media should also be asking why he’s been arrested.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The row over whether the entertainer Rolf Harris should have been named, after his arrest over an ‘historic’ allegation of sexual abuse, has highlighted two problems with the UK media today. The first is the way the ‘Leveson effect’ is already limiting what the press can and will report. The second problem is the climate of conformism that means the media is not prepared to ask awkward questions about the direction in which the post-Jimmy Savile police operation is heading.

A free press should be able to name those who are arrested by the police, even if they have not been charged, in the interests of open justice. But a free and open press should surely also be able to question why an 83-year-old man has been arrested at all, apparently because of an allegation that he groped a young woman decades ago.

When Harris was first arrested last year, and again more recently, the police refused to name the suspect – though reports that it was him quickly circulated on the web. Harris’ lawyers then contacted the national media to warn editors not to dare to name their client. The legal eagles cited Lord Justice Leveson’s proposal that the media should be barred from naming any suspect until after they had been formally charged. This plan was recently endorsed by judges who suggested that anybody named by the press after an arrest should be able to sue for damages.

These lawyerly threats had the required chilling effect, dissuading the media from naming Harris until the Sun broke ranks last week. The rest of the press quickly followed suit, and also revealed the way that Harris’ lawyers had threatened them with the full weight of the Leveson report.

There is obvious sympathy for somebody named in relation to a crime, particularly a sexual offence, of which they have not been found guilty. Many will recall the experience of Christopher Jefferies, the Bristol landlord of murder victim Joanna Yeates, who was monstered in several newspapers after being briefly arrested. Jefferies later won sizeable damages and starred at the Leveson Inquiry.

Yet there have been many other examples where the public naming of suspects has been key to the case. In any case, the principles of a free press and an open system of criminal justice, where justice can be seen to be done, ought to override other concerns. Anonymity and secrecy are the enemies of justice. To give the police and courts more power to keep what they are doing under wraps is to move into the realms of a secret state. And that cannot be in the interests of the public. Nor, despite what Lord Justice Leveson and Harris’ lawyers might say, can it ultimately be in the interests of those arrested to have their treatment by the police kept from public surveillance.

So yes, the media should have been free to name Rolf Harris as the 83-year-old arrested. But they should surely also have been prepared to ask why.

Operation Yewtree, the huge police operation launched after the revelations and allegations about Jimmy Savile’s sexual offences, is heading in an increasingly dangerous direction. The operation is divided into three strands: allegations involving the odious Savile, allegations involving ‘Savile and others’, and allegations simply involving ‘others’. It is this third strand that looks increasingly like a runaway train.

The pursuit of ‘others’ over ‘historic’ allegations of sexual abuse has led to the arrest of several superannuated comedians and other celebrities from the Sixties and Seventies. Some of them have reportedly been accused, not of abusing children or raping anybody, but of groping a woman or women decades ago. As the disc jockey Dave Lee Travis put it after his arrest, he was questioned over allegedly ‘squeezing a couple of women’s boobs’ in the 1980s. Rolf Harris is the latest, and easily the most popular, old celebrity to be arrested by the Yewtree police, apparently after a middle-aged woman accused him of molesting her when she was a teenager.

The police’s zealous pursuit of ‘others’ looks, as previously discussed on spiked, like ‘putting the past on trial’, judging the Sixties and Seventies by the moral and legal standards of today – and finding them guilty. This witch hunt disguised as criminal justice should surely be seriously questioned.

Instead, the media has largely enthusiastically endorsed Yewtree’s mission creep, reporting that the likes of Harris and DLT have been arrested by ‘Savile cops’, as if their alleged misdemeanours were linked to and on a par with the many serious offences of which he has been posthumously accused.

Operation Yewtree has become a prime example of one of the biggest problems with the media and public debate today: an issue on which only one story can be told. The atmosphere of uncritical conformism and emotional correctness that dominates the news media has ensured that no serious questions have been asked – and any suggestion from those arrested that they should not have been is met by the demand that we must automatically believe the alleged victims.

This culture of conformism in the UK media predates the Leveson Inquiry, but has been powerfully reinforced by that inquisition into the ‘culture and ethics’ of the unruly British press. It has become seen as unethical, or even criminal, to challenge the state’s crusade against those accused of ‘historic’ sexual abuse.

Yet there are quite reasonable questions that ought to be asked about what’s really behind a major police campaign to arrest old celebrities over allegations of relatively minor sexual offences dating back decades, on the word of one accuser. It is hard to see how justice can be served by what Professor Frank Furedi’s important new book on the Savile affair calls ‘moral crusades in an age of mistrust’.

As with the issue of press freedom, there might be lessons to be learned here from America. Many US states apply a strict statute of limitations on less serious sexual offences, setting time limits on the pursuit of such cases, especially those not involving children and where there is no new DNA evidence. Nobody could be arrested or charged with groping 30 or 40 years after the alleged event, on the word of one other. Such rules recognise, not that the accusers are lying or that their experience is unimportant, but that such cases cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt and no real good can come of pursuing them.

The authorities have got some serious questions to answer about what Yewtree has become. Yet the media is not doing its job of interrogating and holding them to account. Yes, it was important that the press ultimately refused to be cowed and named Harris. But it is at least as important that the media have the nerve to ask why he was arrested in the first place.

To paraphrase one of Rolf’s favourite catchphrases: can you see what they’re doing yet? And shouldn’t we demand to know what’s behind Yewtree?

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever is published by Societas and is now available in print and Kindle editions. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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