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Operation Yewtree: More Heat than Light

January 11, 2013

Today saw the publication of the combined report from the Metropolitan Police and NSPCC on Operation Yewtree, the investigation into allegations against Jimmy Savile. This report will undoubtedly become a primary source of evidence in the whole Savile affair, and because of this, it demands careful reading and, I believe, just as careful a response.

The report is called Giving Victims a Voice. This immediately tells us two important things: firstly, that the allegations against Savile are ‘true’ (otherwise, there would be no victims), and secondly, that ‘giving victims a voice’ is a reasonable way to approach this difficult issue. I believe that both these assumptions must be interrogated.

Firstly, are the allegations true?

The report begins by referring to ‘Savile’s reported offending’. This reminds us that what we are dealing with here is reported evidence, that is, allegations, not proven facts. The authors go on to admit that ‘not all victims have been interviewed by the police’, and it cautions the reader to appreciate that ‘the information provided has not been corroborated’. The report goes on to state that ‘Further investigation seeking corroboration of individual allegations … is considered disproportionate when there is no prospect of criminal proceedings’.

So far so good. The main body of the report forgets any of this restraint in presentation and goes on to give detailed information about the age and gender of victims, the sites and nature of abuse, and the profile of people contacting helplines. It concludes with lessons learned and outcomes (I will discuss this next). The problem I have with the evidence presented is that we have no way of knowing the status of any of the accounts presented. Many may well be true – I have little doubt about this – but how can we know, and what do we know? It is at least possible that some of the allegations are untrue, prompted by the promise of fame and possibly even fortune. This is avery difficult subject, and the reality of sexual abuse is that very many of us will have experienced some kind of assault or abuse at some point in our lives. Does this make the Savile story ‘unique’, as suggested in the report? One of the most important observations (in my view) is made at the end of the report:

‘The details provided by the victims of his abuse paint the picture of a mainly opportunistic individual who used his celebrity status as a powerful tool to coerce or control them, preying on the vulnerable or star-struck for his sexual gratification.’

How does this portrayal connect with the presentation of a demon who ‘groomed a nation for sex abuse’ (as stated today by Commander Peter Spindler, and reported widely in the press? And how does it speak to Peter Watt of NSPCC’s claim that Savile was ‘an evil and manipulative man’ who ‘cunningly built his entire career around gaining access to vulnerable children.’ Did he? How could we know this? Surely the ‘truth’ is much more mundane and much more ordinary, as the quotation from the report suggests. Yet media coverage of the report has already been highly selective and highly sensationalist in its approach. I believe, unfortunately, that it is this that will be remembered as we move forward into the next phase of the Savile scandal.

Secondly, is a process like this a positive one, and for whom?

This kind of approach to evidence-gathering (and indeed policy-making) suggests that encouraging victims to come forward and tell their stories is beneficial, for society and for individuals. The report concludes that there has been a ‘significant rise in the level of reporting of past sexual abuse of children’. The authors suggest that this is because of media coverage about Jimmy Savile and ‘victims’ increased confidence that they will be listened to by the authorities’.

Of course it is important that people’s stories are heard and taken seriously. And if adults and children are encouraged to report abuse in the future, then this must be a good thing. But what is to be gained from the anticipated massive number of civil claims that will result from this case? And how will agencies (including the BBC) manage the financial and organisational implications that will follow on from this report? We already have in place a number of measures to protect vulnerable children and adults. Do we really need even more risk-averse practice, or rather, do we need to find ways of building a society where care and trust can be allowed to flourish?

Reflecting on this whole affair, I believe that the important question we must ask is this: what kind of a society do we want to live in? It seems likely that this report, and everything that emerges from it, will take us further away from a society in which we look out for each other, and in doing so, afford real protection to those who are vulnerable. Let’s hope there are enough people who are willing and able to look beyond the scary headlines over the next few weeks and months to bring back an element of thoughtfulness to this discussion.

Viv Cree, 11th January 2013.  Comment via Twitter @vivcree

(For a fuller analysis of some of the issues in creating policy from victims’ narratives, see Smith et al (2012) http://www.crfr.ac.uk/events/moralpanic/publications/Time%20to%20be%20heard.pdf)

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