THE conflicting emotions I felt seeing Stuart Hall struggling down the steps of Preston Crown Court last week reminded me of those evoked by the sight of old Nazis whose prosecution continues to be sought by the Simon Weisenthal Centre.
Stripped of their power and often walking with the aid of a stick, they seem to have nothing in common with the cruel, cold figures who stalked the concentration camps; so gaunt do many of them look, I have to focus on the atrocities they carried out to stop myself feeling sorry for them.
Hall, too, is now a world away from the feted It’s a Knockout presenter whose sense of his own invincibility was so entrenched he wandered round groping women at will and was given a room at the BBC building for his many dalliances. After months of denials, he has admitted that, at the height of his career, he indecently assaulted 13 girls, one of them as young as nine. Like Jimmy Savile, he used his fame to lure them before fondling their breasts or putting his hand up their skirts. Diminished by age, Hall may present no threat today, but having waited, the victims deserved to see justice served.
For me, Hall’s guilty pleas – submitted only when the case against him was insurmountable – dispelled any concerns that police involved in Operation Yewtree were engaged in a conscience-salving witch-hunt.
However, as journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown has revealed, if police hadn’t been prepared to follow up an anonymous letter from a woman claiming to have been abused by him while still at school, Hall might have got away with it. It is reassuring to think the police are finally giving such allegations the attention they merit.
Coming a day after Coronation Street actor Bill Roache was charged with two counts of rape, Hall’s guilty pleas also convinced me that those accused in sex cases should not be granted anonymity. Roache had raised the issue after his co-star Michael le Vell was accused of a string of alleged child sex offences, pointing out such charges carry a stigma so great it cannot be cast off even in the event of an acquittal. When John Leslie was cleared of indecent assault, the judge told him he could leave court “without a stain on his character”, yet he could not rekindle his career. People spat at Terry Harrison in the street and smashed the windows of his house when he was falsely accused of raping Shirley Prince at a house party in County Durham in 2008. Later, the charges were dropped and Prince was convicted of attempting to pervert the course of justice.
In a system founded on the principle of innocent until proven guilty, it is reasonable to ask if it’s fair for someone accused of a sex offence to have their name bandied about, particularly when their accuser’s identity is protected by law. Such public humiliation could easily result in suicide. And how much greater are the stakes when those involved are elderly? The toll on the health of Roache, Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, Freddie Starr, must be huge. What happens if one of them dies before their case reaches court? Their reputations will be tarnished with no opportunity for them to clear their names.
Three-quarters of people polled by ComRes last week said they supported anonymity for the accused in rape cases. It’s not as if it would be unprecedented. The 1976 Sexual Offences Act made it illegal to identify either the victim or the defendant in England and Wales (at least until a guilty verdict was returned) with anonymity for the accused only scrapped in 1988 to aid police investigations. And there’s the rub. As Yewtree has demonstrated, many survivors of abuse have suppressed their experiences for so long, they will come forward only if something triggers their memories or if they have reason to believe they will be listened to.
After it became clear the invisible shield protecting Savile had been shattered, the inquiry took on its own momentum, with more of his victims telling their stories until we understood what a predator he’d been. Likewise, gathering evidence against Hall was complicated. Although his name was on detectives’ radar, it was information which became available after his name was publicised that allowed them to build a case.
Since predatory sexual behaviour seems to have been rife in the world of light entertainment in the 70s, it is reasonable to assume there are more victims. They, too, deserve to be heard. So let the names of those who have been accused be given a good airing. If they are guilty, then it’s important those affected have the chance to say: “Yes, that happened to me, too”. If they are not, then the knowledge they have been subjected to the widest possible scrutiny will make it easier to accept an acquittal at face value.
Sympathetic though I am to the plight of those falsely accused, when it comes to sex cases the rights of the alleged victim must trump all others. The Savile scandal has given those whose abuse was covered up the confidence to bring it to light. Any attempt to protect the identity of their alleged attackers would represent a step back to an era where a conspiracy of silence allowed wrongdoing to go unchecked.