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Eilis O'Hanlon: 'Witch-hunt' has elements of guilty 'til proven innocent

AT this stage, it would be quicker to list the celebrities who haven't been arrested for allegedly interfering with young girls during the Sixties and Seventies, rather than the ones who have. Each week there's a new roster of household names named and shamed.

Daily Telegraph cartoonist Matt depicted it this week as a game of Celebrity Arrest Bingo. Jim Davidson . . . Stuart Hall . . . Rolf Harris . . . Bill Roache . . . house!

There must have been people who felt uneasy as Operation Yewtree, set up initially to investigate crimes committed by the late paedophile Jimmy Savile, transmuted into a sort of big-game hunt, with TV stars instead of elephants as targets – but they said nothing, because to show any doubts about the conduct of the investigation is to invite accusations of belittling child abuse.

That isn't true, any more than having qualms about certain activities by the security services implies a sneaking regard for terrorism, but who wants to take the risk of public opprobrium by saying it out loud? The answer turned out to be Barbara Hewson, senior barrister at Hardwicke's chambers in London and a regular commentator on legal and political affairs in the UK and here in Ireland (she has been vocal for years about our abortion laws).

Writing in online magazine Spiked, Hewson plunged in headfirst by comparing the mass arrests of elderly men for their conduct 30, 40, sometimes 50 years ago to an inquisitorial witch-hunt. The tabloids called for her head. Legal colleagues rushed to distance themselves from her remarks. She stuck doggedly to her guns.

To be fair, her detractors had a point, because Hewson's argument didn't entirely hold up. The concentration on 84-year-old former It's A Knockout presenter Stuart Hall was unfortunate, since prosecutors had already made clear that he was being charged because a pattern of behaviour had been established that stretched over decades and encompassed a large number of victims.

For Hewson to categorise Hall's offences as "low level misdemeanours" which were "nothing like real crimes" did not really stand up factually.

Her conclusion that lowering the age of consent was an appropriate response to this ongoing story was a little strange too – though it was equally bizarre to hear her detractors claim that lowering it would put young women at the mercy of sexual predators when they have themselves frequently demanded that teenage girls be treated, in matters of sex, as if they were grown women rather than children, and shrilly accused those who want teenagers shielded from sexualisation of being prudish. Are they now admitting that sexual conservatives may have been right all along?

Nonetheless, the vehemence of the reaction against Barbara Hewson demonstrates that she was certainly right to compare the public mood around this issue to a witch-hunt, since it is in the nature of witch-hunts to not only shout down opposition, but also to attack what you think someone said, or what you wish they'd said, rather than what they did say.

Some of the more hysterical reactions to Hewson's Spiked article even said that she was trying to protect child abusers from prosecution, or that she was blaming victims for not being streetwise enough to resist rapists, which is crazy.

All she said was that it is important to draw distinctions between acts we morally disapprove of and those which are actually criminal.

The law constantly discriminates in this way – not all offences are prosecuted; indeed, Hewson points out, many of these alleged offences wouldn't end up in court even if committed today, never mind decades later – but somehow, when it's said out loud that some offences are worse than others, otherwise level-headed people start losing the run of themselves.

When Hewson goes on to state that "stale allegations" emerging decades after an offence has been committed are legally problematic, again she's only stating a fact, but the reaction was such as to suggest that she thought historic offences did not matter.

Why do we not just lock up people we "know" to have committed offences? Because the burden of proof is on the state to prove that they're guilty. That's regarded as a basic tenet of nice liberal, civil liberties types everywhere; yet when it comes to allegations of sexual misbehaviour, the same people seem quite happy to throw out the presumption of innocence, treating every man who's accused of a sexual crime as if he was a proven monster.

They'll insist that they don't, but Hewson quotes the report co-written by the Metropolitan Police and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children into Jimmy Savile, which was published in January this year. That document, called Giving Victims A Voice, actually stated that all those who came forward to make complaints against Savile were to be treated as victims rather than complainants, and their allegations regarded, without any further investigation, as unquestionably true.

Savile's dead. Who cares about the burden of proof? He was a filthy pervert. What does it matter whether he was guilty of every single thing of which he was accused? That may be the common public reaction to quibbling over details, but, as a lawyer, Hewson's alarm bell clearly went off.

Sexual crimes are now being put in a special category where they're regarded as worse than other crimes of violence, with the burden of proof accordingly reduced. You're now assumed to be guilty unless you can prove otherwise, and, as Hewson tends to believe, maybe a lot of these old men don't think it's worth the long, exhausting fight to clear their names.

It would be almost impossible anyway. Mud sticks. Even if every single one of these men was actually a disgusting and dangerous paedophile, the point still stands that what is being pursued right now across the water is a serious cause for concern for anyone who cares about the rights of the individual in the face of an excessive use of authority.

Hewson's conclusion seems inescapable: "What we have here is the manipulation of the British criminal-justice system to produce scapegoats on demand. It is a grotesque spectacle."

In many ways, it's a repeat of the phone hacking scandal, when justifiable public disquiet at the activities of tabloid journalists turned into a destructive hysteria over the very notion of a free press which threatened fundamental and long-cherished freedoms. It's almost as if the media and police between them, having lamentably failed to stop wrongdoing for decades, are now over-compensating in the other direction. Haven't they heard the old saying about two wrongs never making a right?

Irish Independent