No justice in a year of moral crusades
But there are signs of a growing public scepticism about the child-abuse panic.
In 2015, as wider society started to recognise that a climate had developed around allegations of child-sexual abuse and rape that was not conducive to fairness and impartiality, the broader moral panic around sex and intimacy continued.
The dust kicked up by Operation Yewtree, the investigation into sexual abuse carried out by Jimmy Savile ‘and others’, began to settle this year. Some observers recognised that the climate that Yewtree had created had been over the top. At the centre of the backlash against the child-abuse hysteria was Operation Midland, an investigation by the Metropolitan Police into child sex abuse in Westminster. Exaro, an online news publication responsible for bringing many of the Midland allegations to light, with a little help from Labour MP Tom Watson, was heavily criticised for stoking up a ‘witch hunt’ against former MPs, including Harvey Proctor and Lord Brittan.
But, while we at spiked described 2014 as the ‘year of the believers’, 2015 heralded a bit more scepticism. In an interview on BBC Newsnight, Exaro was asked whether its journalists had been too ‘willing to believe’ the complainants making allegations against Proctor. The police also came under fire for proclaiming that they ‘believed’ Midland’s lead complainant, who had alleged, with no evidence, that he had witnessed the murder of a young boy at the hands of Westminster MPs. In 2015, the police finally confirmed that there were serious doubts about the veracity of these claims. The tragedy of unthinking ‘belief’ was reflected in the fact that Lord Brittan, another former MP accused under Operation Midland, had not been told by the police he would face no further action before he died. In the weeks after Brittan’s death, Watson came under pressure for refusing to issue an apology to Brittan’s family.
Yet the panicked atmosphere also gave rise to other injustices. Surely we will look back in shame when we consider the ludicrous treatment of Lord Greville Janner, a former Labour peer who died this weekend. Alison Saunders, the Director of Public Prosecutions, made the entirely sensible decision not to prosecute Janner, on the grounds that he was an 87-year-old in the latter stages of dementia, only to have her decision overturned on review. There was apparently a ‘public interest’ to be found in giving the complainants a forum to express their allegations. The reversal represented the ‘drive to believe’ that has caused so many problems in other cases. Had Janner not died, he would have had to face a trial of the facts in 2016, where he would have sat in the dock entirely unable to understand the case against him or to respond to it. The search for the truth has clearly been subordinated to the drive to believe and give expression to what is being alleged. The decision to put Janner on trial was a sad day for our justice system.
Elsewhere, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse announced its remit. Justice Lowell Goddard said the inquiry would examine sexual abuse in ‘all British institutions’. Commentators now expect the inquiry to last 10 years. At a time when the Metropolitan Police claim to be overwhelmed with allegations of rape and domestic violence, the Goddard Inquiry will eat up public money without giving any practical explanation of its purpose. Here, too, the drive to believe holds sway, with those making complaints described as ‘survivors’ and all sorts of dodgy evidential rules preventing any real scrutiny of the complainants’ cases from being heard.
The climate around rape and sexual violence continued to lead to more cases being tried away from the courtroom, in the court of public opinion and on social media. James Deen and Bill Cosby were subject to tweet-based allegations of sexual assault and rape in 2015 with no concurrent formal complaints being made. #Ibelieve developed as a new and perverse form of virtue signalling, with frantic tweeters desperate to show solidarity with those making allegations of serious crime. The move away from formality was also reflected in the continuing reliance on campus rape ‘tribunals’ to settle complaints from students. Where students were unhappy to take their case to the authorities, universities increasingly offered them the chance to voice their complaint before a ‘disciplinary board’, which could convict and punish defendants without the high evidential requirements of a courtroom. In 2016, I predict that the move away from formality and due process will continue. It will be vital, therefore, to stand up for objectivity and impartiality.
There is hope on the horizon. In the first issue of the fantastic new magazine, Proof, writers grapple with issues around ‘Justice in a time of moral panic’. The magazine, due for release in January, looks to make a vital contribution to the debate about dealing with allegations in a fair and measured way. Here’s hoping that in 2016 we will see the emergence of more critical voices and more debate around justice and due process.