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.
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.
………… 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.