iconimg Sunday, August 30, 2015

Farrukh Dhondy
New Delhi, May 26, 2013
Just as in India the gang rape and murder of the physiotherapy student in Delhi in 2012 and the rape of the five-year-old in April this year have led to riots and a shift in awareness and, one hopes, police behaviour, so 2013 in Britain will be marked and remembered for Operation Yewtree.

I must explain. In late 2012 it was revealed that the late Jimmy Savile, a famous television personality since the 1960s was a predatory paedophile who had sexually assaulted hundreds of children. He had used his fame and position as the presenter of Top of The Pops to seduce or rape boys and girls who lined up in adulation as his fans. His victims have only now come forward, alleging that the assaults took place in the precincts of the BBC in studio dressing-rooms.

Savile also set himself up as a fund-raiser for children's charities contributing to institutions which cared for children with mental and physical disabilities. Some of those have now come forward to say he used his status as a charity benefactor to gain access to and sexually abuse them.

These revelations have led to an inquiry within the BBC and to a police investigation instigated by public outrage, dubbed Operation Yewtree.

Why was he not caught earlier? Did society and the police turn a blind eye to this most awful abuse of the vulnerable because the perpetrator was famous and, therefore, untouchable?

Some of the victims, when asked why they didn't complain immediately after the crime or soon after, protested plausibly that they were only children at the time and were convinced they wouldn't be believed. Did a cultural frame of mind or an evident bias in the magnetic power-orientation of society silence them?

Under the pressure of these questions the remit of Operation Yewtree as defined by the contemporary chiefs of the British police spread to the arrest and questioning of any celebrity who was accused by a victim or victims of such sexual crimes in the past.

A remit of rape investigation should include any individual accused of it, but Operation Yewtree has limited itself to men who are famous and in the public eye. They have arrested and questioned more than 15 actors, disc jockeys, publicists, TV presenters and other 'celebs' whom alleged and anonymous victims have come forward to name, shame and to have prosecuted.

One of these, Tony Stuart, now in his 80s, a TV presenter of some fame in the last three decades, has pleaded guilty to more than 40 counts of rape and indecent assault on children. He was charged, appeared in court and awaits sentence.

His admission of guilt and remorse is unique. All the others who have been arrested and questioned, with the media being tipped off in advance, have either not been charged or deny and contest the accusations levelled against them.

Nevertheless they have been named in the press and in the eyes of the public tarred with the Savile brush. Their accusers remain anonymous because the British law protects the identity of victims of rape but not that of the alleged perpetrator.

Most of the alleged crimes that Operation Yewtree has singled out happened 10, 20, 30 and even 40 years ago. The pattern of arrests so far suggests that there was in the 1960s, 1970s and perhaps later a sub-culture in which pop stars and TV personalities didn't regard sexual acts with their underage fans as criminal activity or perceived it as a risk worth taking.

The British sense of irony sees every rock star of the 1960s and 1970s rushing to hire high-profile lawyers and legging it to far points of the globe in anticipation of impending arrest. The journalists' joke is "to save print, paper and the planet, tomorrow's headlines will name all those celebrities who are not child molesters and rapists."

One senior lawyer has commented that very many of these cases will be impossible to prove as it will be the victims' word against that of the defendants. The burden of proof is heavy but elusive. She says, drawing very wide and strident opposition from other lawyers, that there should be a statute of limitation on such charges and that the alleged rapists should be afforded anonymity in law until proved guilty because their reputations and lives are ruined by the fact of publicised arrest.

With no qualification in law, but some journalistic experience in assessing public mood, I feel that she is right on the first count. A jury will find it difficult to convict on a single allegation but could convict if a pattern of criminal behaviour is established.

A retrospective statute of limitations may let off some suspects of Yewtree - many of them in their 70s and 80s - as the allegations go back several decades. If nothing else, Yewtree is an indicator of this generation's judgement on the nasty cultural assumptions of the previous one.

Even so, some commentators contend that the judgement amounts to a witch-hunt. I can't agree. Witches don't exist. Child molesters - 'kiddy-fiddlers' - do.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal