Yewtree: more propaganda than police investigation

The failure of a few prosecutions won't stop the crusade.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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.

It is not an accident that the first Yewtree report, published in January 2013, was titled Giving Victims a Voice. The report’s objective was to justify Operation Yewtree by sanctifying the moral status of an allegation of abuse. In a dramatic departure from the legal traditions associated with due process, Giving Victims a Voice decided to break with the practice of treating an accusation of abuse as an allegation and instead represented it as a de facto truth. The report’s authors took it upon themselves to define accusers as ‘victims’ rather than ‘complainants’. Moreover, they decided not to regard ‘the evidence [complainants] have provided as unproven allegations’. The supplanting of the phrase ‘unproven allegation’ by the term ‘evidence’ represents an extraordinary change to the carefully calibrated terminology associated with the due process of the law. Now, the mere assertion of victimisation is all that is required to gain the status of a victim. This implied rebranding of an untested allegation into evidence all but relieves the accuser of the burden of proof.

What is important about an operation devoted to the task of giving victims a voice is not what it achieves through the legal process, but its capacity to influence and shape the prevailing climate of opinion. What matters is not the behaviour of a jury during a criminal proceeding, but what occurs in the court of public opinion. That is why all the numerous inquiries launched post-Savile are so focused on influencing public opinion.

In this respect, Operation Yewtree stands in the historical tradition of the moral crusade. Although moral crusades such as the Inquisition or the witch-hunting campaigns of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are remembered for their barbarism, they were actually set up to police people’s attitudes and beliefs. A manual for inquisitors published in 1578 explained the rationale for punishing heretics in the following terms: ‘For punishment does not take place primarily and per se for the correction and good of the person punished, but for the public good in order that others may become terrified and weaned away from the evils they would commit.’ Two centuries later, Voltaire in his satire Candide wrote of an English admiral executed for not killing enough of the enemy. As one of Voltaire’s protagonists explains, killing an admiral from time to time was necessary ‘pour l’encouragement les autres’ – to encourage others. That is, to send out a message.

There is little doubt that Yewtree has succeeded in sending out a message. One consequence of the so-called Yewtree effect is a surge in the number of allegations related to sexual offences. The internet is awash with rumours of future arrests of famous pop stars and other celebrities. Outing middle-aged male celebrities has become a national sport. The dogma that victims rarely lie, and even then that a false allegation still conveys some truth, has been internalised by the criminal-justice system. Indeed, the belief that abuse is so endemic as to render it normal dominates the imagination of the media. Consequently the most ludicrous fantasies are reported by mainstream publications as items of news. Last month, reports that Savile abused up to 1,000 people on BBC premises were circulated by broadsheets almost as fact. Investigative journalists who in a different era might have asked the question ‘how did Savile still manage to find the time to eat, sleep or work?’ were conspicuous by their absence.

A few discredited Yewtree prosecution cases do little damage to the moral crusade being waged. Paradoxically, every time one of Yewtree’s targets is found not guilty, victims’ advocates demand that more should be done. After the Travis verdict, Adam Pemberton, assistant chief executive of Victim Support, lamented that ‘it would be a tragedy if victims were deterred from seeking justice and help by a single case, verdict or incident, however high profile’. In one sentence, the tragedy that befell Travis was rendered invisible and neutralised by a higher cause. It appears that the collateral damage suffered by those falsely accused of abuse is a small price to pay for ‘giving a voice to the victim’.

Experience demonstrates that moral crusades promoting crime scares can sometimes work so effectively that even the most fantastic literary inventions can frighten the public and influence its behaviour. The fantasy of the white slave trade at the turn of the twentieth century made a profound impact on public deliberations. It even mobilised legislators: in June 1910 the US Congress passed the White Slave Act. More recently, urban legends about the killing of women in so-called snuff movies mobilised feminist anti-pornography campaigners to take to the streets. In the 1980s it was the turn of the now discredited campaign against Satanic Ritual Abuse to prey on the imagination of people. Thankfully, most of these episodes of crime construction soon became exhausted and lost their capacity to promote public anxiety and fear.

Unfortunately, the lessons of the past are likely to provide little comfort to the targets of Yewtree. Why? Because this crusade coincides with a far wider and deeper moral malaise than was the case in the past century. Mistrust of human motives is today coupled with the sentiment that abuse in relationships between people is so prevalent as to be a normal fact of life. In such circumstances, believing the worst about people is a sensible course of action. What the exhortation ‘believe the victim’ actually means is ‘believe the worst about ourselves’.

Frank Furedi’s First World War: Still No End in Sight is published by Bloomsbury. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).)

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

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today