Leading barrister deems Operation Yewtree “grotesque spectacle”

Content note: contains description of the sexual assault of a child.

This article, by barrister Barbara Hewson, has almost left me lost for words. Referring to Operation Yewtree and the conviction of Stuart Hall as “the persecution of old men”, she decries what she views as “the present mania for policing all aspects of personal life under the mantra of ‘child protection'” and argues that:

It’s time to end this prurient charade, which has nothing to do with justice or the public interest. Adults and law-enforcement agencies must stop fetishising victimhood. Instead, we should focus on arming today’s youngsters with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations, and prosecute modern crime. As for law reform, now regrettably necessary, my recommendations are: remove complainant anonymity; introduce a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions; and reduce the age of consent to 13.

Stuart Hall’s actions were, apparently, “low-level misdemeanors”. Before we get into the nasty victim blaming and total lack of compassion displayed in the above quote, let’s just remind ourselves what Stuart Hall actually did:

…the broadcaster crept into the [nine-year-old] child’s room under the pretext of going to read her a story. She pretended to be asleep but he lifted the duvet and her night dress before touching her on the upper leg and towards the vaginal area. Although the child did not understand what was happening she knew it was wrong.

The following year Hall was driving a 13-year-old friend of his previous victim to the local tennis club. He stopped his car in a lay by and switched off the engine, telling the frightened teenager there were “other ways” of thanking him. He grabbed her head and forced his tongue into the child’s mouth.

The third charge dated further back to 1974 when Hall was at a function at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens and where he met a teenager then aged either 16 or 17. He put his arm around her and fondled her breast. She told him to stop and did not see him again.

He pleaded guilty to 14 charges in total, and another four – including one of rape – have been left on file.

That anyone – let alone a leading barrister – could write the above off as misdemeanors, feel sorry for the perpetrator and accuse those he attacked of simply “reinterpret[ing] their experience of the past as one of victimisation” makes me feel sick.

Women and girls are routinely disbelieved when we report sexual violence. Our experiences are minimised and we are accused of asking for it. The seriousness with which the accusations against Hall and the other men targeted by Operation Yewtree are now being treated is therefore a very welcome change. Yet Hewson somehow feels the need to attack this step in the right direction.

Let’s take a look at her suggestions. Firstly, that youngsters should be armed “with the savoir-faire and social skills to avoid drifting into compromising situations”. How, exactly, does she propose a nine-year-old girl asleep in her own bed prevent a grown man who is dining with her parents downstairs from assaulting her? Should 13-year-olds never allow a man to give them a lift anywhere? Should 16- and 17-year-olds never be in the same room as, what, men with the name Stuart?

None of these girls “drifted into” a compromising situation. No victim ever does. Sexual assault and harassment happen because the perpetrator makes a choice. And given that perpetrators come in all shapes and sizes and attack in all kinds of situations, the assertion that women and girls can somehow avoid them if they only had the know-how is not only grossly unfair but wholly impractical, if not impossible. What’s more, we’re talking about children here – minors who are dependent on adults and raised to trust and obey them. Putting the onus on girls to protect themselves from predatory grown men just makes no sense. It’s also shockingly callous.

Next up: remove complainant anonymity. I can only assume that Hewson wishes to deter all these horrid women wallowing in their false sense of victimhood from speaking out and ruining the reputation of decent upstanding old men. As things stand, less than 10% of survivors of sexual violence report the crime, and – as we saw with the woman Ched Evans raped – women and girls are routinely accused of lying, have their characters dragged through the mud and are blamed for what happened to them when they do speak out. Remove the opportunity to remain anonymous when making an accusation and I think we’d quickly see that percentage drop to near zero.

Then we have the introduction of a strict statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions and civil actions. This amounts to saying that if sexually violent men can get away with attacking women and girls for long enough, we’ll grant them the right to get away with it until the day they die. We might as well give them a pat on the back and a gold star while sticking two fingers up at their victims. (Remember them?)

Finally, Hewson thinks we should reduce the age of consent to thirteen. We could have a whole long debate about this, but it would be beside the point. There was no consent involved in Stuart Hall’s actions: we’re talking about sexual assault, not consensual sexual activity that was only deemed a crime due to the age of those involved. Bringing the age of consent into the discussion suggests that the children he attacked were complicit, that they wanted it – they’ve made it very clear that they didn’t.

The alternative reading of this final suggestion is that it shouldn’t be deemed a crime for a man to grope and stick his tongue inside adult women, just girls. I can only assume Hewson has never felt the fear, disgust, anger and powerlessness that grown women can experience when this happens.

Hewson argues that, by looking into historical allegations of abuse against Savile and his peers, “moral crusaders” like the NSPCC (yeah, those bastards) are “universalising the notion of abuse, making it almost as prevalent as original sin”. Yet abuse of both children and adults is widespread. Surely we need to face up to and tackle this problem, not make excuses and sweep it under the carpet?

Image of poisonous yew tree berries by Dave A, shared under a Creative Commons licence.