In August 2014, BBC television broadcast live footage of a raid by South Yorkshire police on the home of a 73-year old man in Berkshire. The home belonged to the singer Cliff Richard. The footage was especially dramatic – there were obviously two cameras, one at the front of the house filming police officers as they entered, another on a helicopter hovering above the house, showing images of officers moving through the premises.
The raid had a legitimate purpose: the police were seeking evidence to corroborate allegations of child sexual abuse made against Richard. But Richard had not yet been questioned about those allegations. And it was obvious to anyone watching that the police had tipped off the BBC. It is just about plausible that the TV station had somehow got lucky with its camera at the front of the house. But the aerial shots told everyone watching that the BBC had time to hire a helicopter. As later investigations revealed, the BBC had in fact been told of the raid the previous evening.
Richard has yet to be charged with any offence and he is entitled to the presumption of innocence. But whatever happens he will never be innocent again. His reputation is destroyed. Those TV images spoke volumes to anyone watching. They said the crimes involved were so enormous that a big, dramatic raid was justified. They said that this was a huge news story, warranting the deployment of the BBC’s physical and journalistic resources. And they said that two major British public institutions – the BBC and the police – were pretty confident there was something deeply dodgy about Richard. Whatever happens in relation to any allegations – even if he is never charged; even if he is charged and cleared – “child abuse” and “Cliff Richard” will always cling to each other.
I remember watching that footage and being shocked by it. And I remember thinking that, for all that's wrong in Ireland, that kind of thing wouldn't happen here. It seemed to me, naively as it turns out, that there was some kind of restraint still at work in this society.
In relation to child abuse I imagined that that restraint came not from any tendency to dismiss the utter seriousness of such crimes but from the opposite direction. This is a society that knows, perhaps better than any other, that allegations of child abuse are personal, political and social Semtex. We know this because the explosions have reverberated though church and state for the last 20 years. We know they are powerful enough to destroy a 1,500 year-old church. After all that, you’d think we would know better than any other society that this is stuff you handle with extreme care.
No one thinks this is easy to do. There are two ways of being hideously unjust in relation to child abuse. One is to ignore the victims, to suppress the story. We did this in Ireland for decades but we're not alone: the BBC's cover-up of the crimes of Jimmy Savile gives the Catholic Church in Ireland a good run for its money. It matters enormously that all allegations are taken seriously and investigated with rigour and care.
But destroying a person’s good name without giving him a chance to defend himself is not rigorous or careful. It is abusive – of the accused person, of the legal process and of basic human decency. Sexual crimes rightly carry a particular odium in our society and sexual crimes against children are doubly odious. It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that most of us would rather be accused of murder than of child sexual abuse: “paedo” is a worse insult than “killer”. If someone tells you have killer sunglasses, you’d thank them, if they said you had paedo sunglasses you’d hit them. The accusation of child abuse is not mud being thrown, it’s acid. It might be washed off the surface but the scars will always be there.
We know all this. We know how much shame there is in being silent about child abuse, in looking the other way – so we can imagine how much shame there is in actually perpetrating it. And that's why I assumed that the raging energies of curiosity and sensation would be kept in check here. What's happened to Pat Carey over the last week shows that I was wrong.
Let’s be clear: leaking details of a child- abuse investigation that is in its early stages is not about taking the abuse seriously. It’s the opposite – it’s about turning an immensely serious and destructive act into cheap entertainment. It is just another way of exploiting the pain and trauma of a child. And let’s therefore be clear about something else: anyone who is involved in these leaks has no business being involved in the investigation of such alleged crimes. They have no respect for the seriousness of what’s involved or for the purpose of bringing perpetrators to trial. That purpose is the restoration of the dignity that has been stolen from the victim. You don’t restore lost dignity by treating child- abuse investigations as thrilling titbits of gossip.