JIMMY SAVILE, Dave Lee Travis, Stuart Hall, Jimmy Tarbuck, and
Jim Davidson used to entertain us. Now, they trouble us, each
arrested or accused of sexual offences against minors or women. But
should we just let them alone? As yet another ageing celebrity
appears on our screen, one lawyer says that we should stop
"fetishising victimhood". Is that what we are doing?
The barrister in question, Barbara Hewson, goes further. In the
online magazine Spiked, she says that the age of consent
should be 13, and we should stop the "persecution of old men" in
what she calls a "prurient charade". She also believes that
complainants should no longer receive anonymity; and that, after a
certain length of time, prosecution should become impossible.
In response, the NSPCC describes her views as "outdated and
Ms Hewson says that "touching a 17-year-old's breast, kissing a
13-year-old, or putting one's hand up a 16-year-old's skirt" are
not comparable to gang rapes and murders, and "anyone suggesting
otherwise has lost touch with reality." The NSPCC warns against
trivialising the impact of these offences for victims, which "all
but denies they have in fact suffered abuse at all".
It can appear that it is the 1970s on trial more than any
individual. "Things were different then," someone said to me. "You
can't apply the same rules now." Go down this path, and the
prosecution of "old men" can appear meaningless, because, yes,
things have changed: the main difference is the hyper-vigilant
culture we now live in.
"Inappropriate" behaviour towards children sets communal alarm
bells ringing, while new protective fences abound. "Under no
circumstances must a volunteer who has not obtained a CRB
disclosure . . . be left unsupervised with children," the
Department for Education guidelines state.
There is no guarantee that a CRB check will prevent abusers'
working with children; the smartest will not appear on police
records. But since the Children Act of 1989, a landmark in child
protection, it is certainly different from the '70s.
There is a deep sense of loss in all of this, felt by many. As a
former head teacher, Sue Palmer, says: "There's a sense of everyone
keeping an eye on everyone else. People can become paranoid - they
can be frightened of putting a plaster on a child's knee. On one
hand, we're stopping occasional awful things from happening, but,
on the other hand, it's breaking down human interaction when it
comes to caring for children."
True. "Occasional awful things" do bring paranoia and
legislative overreaction. But, we will not demonise children in our
discomfort; neither will we turn away from the abuse of adult
power, even if the suspects now have grey hair.