Monthly Archives: October 2012

Lessons from the Savile saga

(First posted October 2012)

Stoke Mandeville hospital is being urged to open one. The BBC’s already started two. There’s another at the Department of Health.

The inquiries into Jimmy Savile’s abuse of children are mushrooming almost as fast as the sickening stories of what the TV showman did to dozens of teenaged girls (and, reportedly, some boys too.)

Still the Labour party wants more: one big, over-arching, independent inquiry into what Ed Miliband rightly called the “horrific allegations.” Putting aside the Labour leader’s knee-jerk inquiry-itis, he – like the BBC and all the others now investigating the past – is missing an important point.

Why was one man able to get away with abusing young people for so long? Because, as some of the victims have said, he told them if they raised the alarm and ratted on “King Jimmy” they would not be believed.

And he was right.

While 58% of rape cases that make it to court result in a conviction (not all for rape, sometimes for a lesser offence) only 13% of rapes recorded by the police end in any kind of conviction at all.

Convictions for sex offences against those under 18 are going up, but they still account for less than 10% of the total recorded by the police. (And I’m talking about the ones who report the allegations. Surveys suggest 34% of 11-17 year olds who’ve been abused by an adult do not tell anyone at all about it.)

Why? Well you could ask one of the 15 year olds raped repeatedly by the notorious Rochdale grooming gang. She told the police what had been going on and they believed her. But the Chief Prosecutor in the area decided “she would not be viewed as a credible witness by a jury” and shelved the case. The abuse continued.

“Not a credible witness.” As any reporter (myself included) who’s covered stories of alleged sexual abuse knows, that simple phrase can kill a journalistic investigation stone dead. It goes hand in hand with demands by victims for anonymity – completely understandable but tricky when building a bullet-proof case.

And what does “credible mean?” Well, for a case to get as far as a court room, prosecutors must be satisfied “there is evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction” In sex abuse cases that’s hard because usually the only witnesses are the victim and the perpetrator.

In incidents involving children or teenagers it’s even harder. They will be asked detailed questions in court and, usually traumatised, will fail to remember dates, times, places and other details that the defence will almost certainly demand. Telling the truth is one thing, doing it “credibly” is another.

Then there are those whose very vulnerability is what led to them being preyed on in the first place. Jimmy Savile is accused of exploiting several young people who turned up for his TV shows. That’s opportunism, but there’s a calculated cunning in the stories of his prowling the corridors of Stoke Mandeville and Broadmoor hospitals.

And let’s not forget the special “treats” he distributed when he rolled up to Duncroft Approved School for “disturbed girls.” As at least one of the pupils there has now said, they reported the abuse to school authorities but were told to hush their filthy mouths. How could they be believed – Jimmy was a star, while they were just “disturbed.”

How could a Rochdale teenager be believed when her violent and degrading sexual history meant (according to some social workers) she was clearly on the game? Several of the other teenagers came from chaotic families or were living in care. Meaning nobody much cared when police and social workers decided it was a “lifestyle choice” for a kid to hang out with older, abusive men.

The vulnerable are by no means the only people ever abused but they are often the easy targets. And the same factors that make them vulnerable, make them difficult to believe in the cut and thrust of our adversarial courts.

Of course, it’s right as a principle that the Crown Prosecution Service should need solid evidence to bring a case. That’s how our justice system works. In criminal trials the individual is assumed innocent and the far more powerful state has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that they’re not.

But as Jimmy Savile proved, sometimes it’s the individual who’s got the power. The state is weak and that weakness means the victims are failed.

So should we change the rules of evidence in sex abuse cases? Educate juries about credibility and vulnerability? Improve police, prosecution and social work training and skills so that the abused are listened to, supported and given a more powerful voice?

There are many questions (and I haven’t even touched on a celebrity culture that puts creeps like Savile on a pedestal nor on his aggressive use of charity as a weapon to keep him there.)

As for answers, they won’t be found in the endless inquiries of institutions guilt-ridden at being duped by an exploitative man.

What we need is a task force, a commission or a national debate to put right a system and a culture that repeatedly fails the powerless.

Don’t mention the C word

How should we deal with our remnants of Empire?

Some (the Falklands, Gibraltar) cling to us, more British than Britain, terrified of the alien nations next door.

Others grudgingly accept our existence (and our financial help) when they need it but feel little real affection for the UK – especially when we start bossing them around.

That’s the case today in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where I recently watched the very British governor open a new radar station as a choir of local school children sang “God Save the Queen.”

The Turks and Caicos are a string of flat, rocky islands atop stunning reefs in the Caribbean. The white sand beaches run for miles, the sea is warm, calm and crystal clear.

But the politics are a lot murkier.

The islands, one of 14 British Overseas Territories,  have been plagued by jaw-dropping corruption allegations and chronic mismanagement for years.  Though London knew of the wheeling and dealing that was plundering local resources and, allegedly, making certain officials (and foreign developers) very rich indeed, nobody did anything about it. (It was the same when I drew attention to serious human rights abuses there for a 2002 BBC documentary. The Foreign Office refused my repeated requests for an interview.)

Eventually the pleas of the local residents (and the collapse of the economy) couldn’t be ignored. An inquiry was set up and stories of corruption poured forth.

In 2009, the UK had no choice but to kick out the locally elected government and take full control.  Today, the Turks and Caicos are a proper old fashioned colony run by the Governor sent from London, supported by advisory bodies hand-picked by him.

The islanders, including some of those who screamed “Do something!” at London, don’t like it very much.

“They can’t just come in when it suits them and rule with an iron fist,” a young tourist guide tells me.

“They came in thinking everyone here is corrupt” grumbles an older businessman in the sleepy capital Grand Turk.

Certain people arrived “with a Big Stick approach” says a leading politician (in a thinly disguised attack on the current Governor). And so on.

Their grievances are many and varied. From complaints about the length of time it’s taken to bring alleged miscreants to court (trials start later this year) to the slowness in producing an economic plan to revive the islands. They were whacked in 2008 not just by the mess of their own leadership’s creation but also by the global economic crash and a direct hit from a Hurricane.

“There’s no hope on the horizon,” says the Grand Turk businessman, “nothing to tell us things are going to get better”.

Instead, islanders complain, what they’re getting is a very unpopular (and possibly unworkable) Value Added Tax and an even more hated European Union-standard Equalities Law which, rumour has it, will force recognition of same-sex marriage in this very conservative Christian territory (it won’t).

Plus, of course, many long overdue rules and regulations aimed at cleaning up politics, which were viciously cliquey and nepotistic long before the serious corruption appeared. In fact the entire public sector is being reformed and independent institutions given more clout.

The Governor says his administration does consult widely. That people always grumble about government and it just so happens that here, the government is him.  Another official suggests that when islanders say they haven’t been consulted, what they really mean is the discussion didn’t go their way.

But it’s more than that.

Next month, elections will see the restoration of local government. The campaign is in full swing and, with little to be proud of in their own past behaviour, the political parties are rounding on the British as a common enemy.

“The British government must know there will be resistance when these parties take office,” says one candidate ominously. Another islander says that because the Governor will retain significant powers even after the election, “the politicians will get frustrated and then they’ll mobilise the masses.”

To do what though? The former premier, Michael Misick (currently on the run from an international arrest warrant) used to talk of independence. But there’s never been a formal request for it. Lets face it, who wants to give up the benefits of British citizenship? Plus they all know investors gain confidence when they arrive in the hot, scruffy airport and see a picture of the Queen.

Local politicians talk of “personalities,” of how given the right type of Governor they could all get along just fine.  I think what they mean is the type who – with a neglectful London’s connivance – will turn a blind eye to some shameful goings on.

And what’s in it for Britain?  Nothing. We don’t want the Turks and Caicos Islands. We did once, centuries ago when they were the centre of Caribbean salt production. But that industry is long dead. Now there are just beaches filled with sun-seeking condo owners – mostly from Canada and the US.

We have been hopeless at helping the islands develop democratically, unable or unwilling to challenge blatantly outrageous behaviour in what one former UK official calls “a mini-failed state.” In part that’s because we’ve got a lot of problems of our own. Who’s got  the time or money for a scrap of territory in the Caribbean?

But it’s also because Britain is embarrassed by reminders of Empire. Particularly in a place where many islanders are the descendants of slaves. Our slaves.

Mr Misick used to play on that, warning his compatriots to watch what they said in front of UK officials he’d call “the enemy.” More recently, from hiding, his charges of racism have been more direct. London he said, wasn’t bothered when white expats were doing well. They only started asking questions when black islanders got their hands on Crown lands.

One should take Mr Misick’s Mugabe-esque rantings with a large pinch of the salt that used to be raked from Grand Turk’s vast salinas.

But he’s right about one thing. Call it cleaning up government and sorting out the finances if you like but there is no way around it:

There is something very uncomfortable about Britain’s pukka imperialism in this post-colonial age.