After Savile: policing as entertainment

Operation Yewtree isn’t about solving crime – it’s more like a reality TV format where the police’s aim is to thrill the paedo-fearing public.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

When, 50 years from now, historians look back at the extraordinary amount of energy that was devoted in the early 2010s to investigating historical crimes allegedly committed by ageing celebrities, they will be stumped. They will face a serious challenge: how to explain the strange mutation of the UK justice system into a sub-branch of reality TV.

Clearly, the pursuit of old-aged celebs is no longer just a story about Jimmy Savile. The specific case of Savile and his predatory sexual behaviour has been overtaken by something else, by a bigger campaign. The exposure of Savile as a sex predator swiftly spawned a bewildering number of official inquiries and a police operation that has a licence to investigate just about anything – preferably claims about events that happened a very long time ago. Operation Yewtree is really a crusade, focused on outing ageing celebrities and exposing them as ex-predators. Typically, its targets are arrested but not charged with a real crime. One important exception is the celebrity publicist Max Clifford, who last week was finally charged with 11 indecent assaults, including one that allegedly occurred in 1966.

The arrests of the Yewtree celebrities is usually preceded by leaks, which give rise to media speculation and social-media gossip. Rumours about Rolf Harris were circulating on the internet for four months before Harris was finally arrested this month. Right now, rumours about other high-profile individuals are spreading through online discussion groups. Anyone interested in such tittle tattle about the next-to-be-arrested predators need only do a quick Google search to find out which old celeb will soon be getting the Yewtree treatment. Indeed, as you read this, there is fevered speculation in newspapers about the forthcoming arrest of a ‘much-loved comedian’. It’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that arresting celebrities but not charging them – that is, just publicly humiliating them- is the real aim and message of Yewtree.

What is fascinating about this new sport of outing so-called ‘celebrity pedophiles’ – as some people refer to these individuals, even before they have been convicted of any crime – is that it has been enthusiastically embraced by the entire media. Journalists for what are still misleadingly referred to as quality newspapers, the kind that often express contempt for down-market tabloids that harass celebs or out ‘perverts’, are all promoting the new Yewtree entertainment format. Indeed, last autumn, very high-minded, self-styled ‘investigative journalists’ were at the forefront of promoting false allegations about a Tory politician on Twitter. The enthusiasm and relish with which these journalists seek to show off their insider knowledge (which is often just based on myth and misinformation) shows how this crusade has acquired a very dangerous dynamic.

How to catch a paedophile

The moral crusade sparked by the Savile case is an important milestone in the rise of reality entertainment. Indeed, reality and entertainment have become so closely intertwined that it is difficult to tell if Yewtree is a case of life imitating art or simply a media-fuelled moral crusade.

So how does this police investigation as entertainment work? Well, if you want a glimpse into the interweaving of fact and fiction, visit the website of Shiver, the ‘factual’ arm of ITV. This is the company that produced Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, which was the catalyst for the numerous ongoing investigations into his and other people’s alleged historical crimes. On the site, underneath a typically silly photo of Savile, there is a section titled ‘More Shows’. Almost seamlessly, Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile is banded together with other apparently public-service oriented reality programmes. Weight Loss Ward, The Grave Trade, May The Best House Win – those are just some of the wonderful reality shows mentioned next to Exposure.

For those who want something stronger than Come Dine With Me, Shiver promises to provide more exposures in the near future. Under the heading ‘Latest’, we’re informed that Mark Williams-Thomas will ‘work exclusively with Shiver on undercover investigation[s]’. The blurb tells us that Williams-Thomas is none other than the ‘criminologist and investigative journalist’ who worked closely on ITV’s Jimmy Savile “Exposure” film’. The ‘Latest’ sections concludes by informing us that Peter Andre’s 60 Minute Makeover will be transmitted on ITV Daytime later this year.

Mark Williams-Thomas came to prominence through his association with another ITV factual drama: the two-part programme To Catch a Paedophile, screened in 2009. That show harnessed the public’s fascination with paedophilia to produce a successful reality-factual format. The idea of turning paedophilia into a subject for reality entertainment originated in the US. That is where the entertainment industry first tapped into public anxiety over male predators. Over the past quarter of a century, the themes of child abuse and serial predators have been a constant in films, TV dramas and literature; over the past decade they have become fodder for reality television, too.

In November 2004, the series To Catch a Predator was launched in the US. It used hidden cameras and investigators, who would impersonate youngsters with a view to exposing any men who contacted them on the internet. In this grotesque version of Candid Camera, potential sex predators were put in the spotlight in order that they might be humiliated and punished for their behaviour. The police swiftly became involved: from the third series onwards, they actively participated in the show. Dramatic arrests were made on camera, ensuring that this series was a mix of ‘public service’ and thrilling entertainment. The suicide of one of the men targeted in the series probably only added to its appeal. A spin-off show, Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes, aired extra footage for those who couldn’t get enough of this witch-hunt as entertainment.

A German variant of To Catch A Predator, hosted by Stephanie zu Guttenberg, the celebrity great-granddaughter of Otto von Bismarck, also used investigators impersonating teenagers to try to incite predatory men to meet in a place that was being filmed. But the ‘teenager’ doesn’t turn up and instead the would-be predator is challenged by a journalist pretending to be the teenager’s mother. The whole drama is secretly caught on tape for the entertainment of the public.

Producers of reality TV shows no longer have a monopoly on this exposure format. Recently it was reported that four parents, describing themselves as ‘Letz go Hunting’ had formed a vigilante group with the aim of catching online predators. Posing as young girls online, they have come up with evidence that has led to the arrest of four men.

When freelancing parents adopt the same attitude and approach as reality TV dramas, it’s clear that the line that normally divides fantasy from reality has been breached. And sadly, it isn’t only isolated groups of wannabe paedophile-hunters who work from a script authored by reality TV producers – sometimes it seems that even the people involved in official inquiries into alleged past behavior also struggle to distinguish between media reality and reality itself.

I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here

Sadly, the official and media reaction to the exposure of Jimmy Savile’s alleged crimes has little to do with putting wrongs right. The most accurate way to describe Operation Yewtree is as a fishing expedition designed to catch and record a very large number of allegations of abuse. Yewtree’s first report, published in January 2013, said this operation would regard anyone who makes an allegation as a victim, not a complainant. In effect, this operation has casually rebranded unproven allegations as a form of quasi-evidence. It is, of course, important to support victims of crimes; but the wrongs they experienced will not be put right by abandoning the burden of proof.

Operation Yewtree is not in the business of solving reported crimes. Rather, it is devoted to the task of discovering or even constructing alleged sex crimes committed a very long time ago. This dramatic reorientation of policing – away from solving reported crimes and towards searching for crimes that have not been reported – is not really being commented upon. But there should be much more fuss about it, because large trawling operations like Yewtree are really exercises in crime construction. It is likely, of course, that such operations will from time to time uncover genuine cases of terrible criminal behaviour, but they will do so at a very high cost to our system of justice.

This trawling for victims and search for retrospective allegations could have a disturbing impact on the way the criminal justice system works. Instead of solving crimes, the police attempt to uncover them, in order to reinforce and strengthen evidence against the targets of their investigation. A trawling operation is not a response to an allegation of abuse voluntarily made by an individual; it is an invitation to people to reinterpret their past experiences in terms of victimisation and abuse.

Yewtree is not confining itself to the allegations against Savile. A second strand of its operations is designed to discover sex-abuse allegations made about ‘Jimmy Savile and others’. And the all-encompassing third strand throws the net as wide as possible by searching for accusations against people who are entirely unconnected to the Savile abuse investigations – these are referred to simply as ‘Others’. According to newspaper reports, the 83-year-old Rolf Harris was arrested under this strand of the Yewtree investigation. And now, in the eyes of many people, he is by definition someone who must prove his innocence.

Leaving aside the reality-entertainment nature of Yewtree, and its negative impact on the justice system, there is another question to be asked of the arrests of elderly showbusiness figures: what purpose do they serve? Even the police acknowledge that the investigation of historic allegations is not really about fighting or solving crime; rather, such operations are justified on the grounds that, through actively soliciting allegations, they help to give a voice to victims. In reality, however, the main accomplishment of these sorts of operations is to make a moral statement, to create an impression that through putting right past wrongs something positive will be achieved in the here and now.

All crimes, no matter how old, are worthy of serious investigation. But there is a difference between a crime reported a long time ago that is still not solved and the project of soliciting new allegations about previously unknown and unreported alleged crimes. Such an operation can only have a corrosive impact on society. It will do little to exact justice. Instead, it will simply destroy reputations. No real system of justice can test the merits of a retrospective allegation made about an individual act of abuse said to have taken place 40 or 50 years ago. That allegation can, however, be used to make an example of someone and to tarnish his name. The mere act of arresting someone in the atmosphere created by Yewtree is enough to damage his moral standing.

It is important that Yewtree is not looked upon as some malevolent conspiracy that is pursuing a clearly worked-out agenda. It is likely that many of the people involved in this operation have simply internalised the ‘How to Catch a Predator’ ethos of popular entertainment. From this perspective, the very difficulty of discovering networks of celebrity sex-predators serves as proof of these individuals’ deviousness. In such circumstances, the most unlikely allegation made about an event that allegedly happened half a century ago will be seized upon as hard evidence of sexual abuse. There will be demand for more resources to track down elusive abusers. In the course of pursuing their crusade, the crusaders will constantly demand changes to the system of justice – more specifically, they call for the lowering of standards of evidence and burden of proof. And standing in the wings of all this, there are the TV programme makers, looking for new ideas for their thrilling shows dressed up as investigative documentaries.

The possibility of a reality-TV show based on investigations into celebs’ alleged historical crimes is not that far out. It will give a new meaning to ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’. Perhaps the public will have a chance to vote on which celebrity predator should be humiliated in public and arrested. The aim of any such programme would of course be to ‘raise public awareness’, and it would be justified on the grounds that it gives voice to victims and helps protect our children. Because trial by the media is not only more entertaining than the boring old law courts; it also dispenses with the hassles of really securing and serving justice.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal is published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

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Topics Politics


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