Cries of 'witch hunt' accompany sex charge acquittals
As Dave Lee Travis is cleared, Philip Johnston wonders if prosecutors overplayed their hand in an attempt to atone for past failures to deal with Jimmy Savile
On Thursday, another of Britain's familiar figures was to be seen standing outside a courtroom following his acquittal on historic sex charges, his innocence reaffirmed on 12 of the 14 charges he faced – but his reputation wrecked, possibly beyond repair.
The previous week it had been Bill Roache, the Coronation Street stalwart, surrounded by his family, lamenting that there were "no winners" from his prosecution. This time it was Dave Lee Travis, the Hairy Monster himself, a BBC disc jockey and former presenter of Top of the Pops, where he often appeared alongside the man most responsible for his presence in the dock these past few weeks: Jimmy Savile. His platinum blond ghost hovers over these proceedings like a reproach to all who allowed him to slake his predatory sexual appetites with impunity over 50 years.
Travis was the first celebrity to be tried after an investigation by detectives attached to Operation Yewtree, set up to examine a flood of allegations from women in the wake of Savile's death. Roache was not directly part of that inquiry, but the climate in which he was tried cannot be divorced from it.
Separately, another Coronation Street actor, Michael Le Vell, was cleared last year of child sex abuse charges. Is there a pattern? Has the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) overplayed its hand in an attempt to atone for past failures to nail Savile?
Certainly, the lawyers for Roache and Travis believe so and said as much during the trials. Cries of "witch-hunt" have accompanied every acquittal. Even more worrying for the CPS is that they are overseeing a conveyor belt of high-profile alleged offenders arrested by Yewtree and either facing prosecution or currently on bail. Many of these people are even better known that Roache and Travis.
They include Rolf Harris and Max Clifford, the publicist, who are due to stand trial later this year. In the light of the Roache and Travis verdicts, the CPS will be seriously concerned about the next trials.
It is hard not to feel sympathy for the authorities. After Savile died in October 2011, his fame and philanthropy ensured he was the object of the usual knee-jerk veneration that attaches to anyone with even a modest media career.
But it quickly became apparent that something was not quite right. Now he was gone, people who had known of his sexual predilections for years, including many of his former colleagues, began to talk. The BBC's decision not to broadcast its own investigation into Savile appeared to add conspiracy to cover-up; and when it transpired that the police had also had their suspicions but never brought Savile to justice, the balloon went up. So powerful was the "Yewtree effect" that the overall number of sexual offences recorded by the police rose by 17 per cent in a year.
Hundreds of women, many just teenage girls at the time of alleged offences, felt emboldened by the new climate to come forward with stories of assault and abuse at the hands of other stars. And in such circumstance, it is hard not to feel sympathy for the police.
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met commissioner, summed up their dilemma yesterday. "If a victim comes to us and makes an allegation, then they deserve to have a thorough investigation – we can hardly turn them away. In fact, one of the criticisms of Yewtree is that in the past, over the last 20 to 30 years, victims have been turned away and not listened to."
Sir Bernard went on: "We are caught both ways. If we take the victims seriously but there is no further action we could be criticised for being too aggressive.
"Yet if we ignore the victims and send them away, they would say this is a repeat of experiences as a child. So we have to try to do it carefully and sensitively, understanding all the complexities."
But the greatest complexity is the legal process. This is not, we should remember, an era on trial – a retrospective righting of wrongs that happened in the Sixties and Seventies when men in positions of power got away with far more than they could today.
There are doubtless many women who felt they were badly treated, but who kept quiet until they felt a different moral and legal climate could bring them what they hoped would be justice and closure.
Jane Hancock, 54, who gave evidence against Travis, for an alleged indecent assault in the Seventies, said: "It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I am gutted for all of the girls. They must all be feeling terrible."
Travis suggested there could be a pecuniary motive to the accusations. "They can smell money," he said when he was arrested. Yet none of the accusers appears to fit this caricature. They included women who were or became radio presenters, journalists, a trainee nurse and a teacher.
They clearly had a story to tell that the police took seriously and which, in some cases, must have required a good deal of courage. But that is not sufficient grounds to convict someone. Even celebrities like Travis – often tried in the court of public opinion before they have even arrived in the real dock – are innocent until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
And it is here where the CPS has most explaining to do. It is not enough for an alleged victim to sound convincing; there must also be enough evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.
The code for crown prosecutors sets out the basic principles to be followed, including whether the evidence can be used and is reliable. If the case does not pass this test, it must not go ahead, no matter how important or serious.
Yet almost by definition, evidence in historic cases is going to be more open to challenge. Memories may be hazy, witnesses may have died or have forgotten details of events.
One of the more dramatic moments in the Bill Roache trial came when the judge, Mr Justice Holroyde, dismissed one of the charges against him. "The witness was not giving evidence that it did happen, she was giving evidence that she was thinking it did happen and that is not a sufficient evidential basis for the conviction of an offence."
In which case, why was the charge brought?
The reason for doing so takes us to one of the central criticisms levelled at the CPS – the bundling together of so-called similar fact evidence in an attempt to create a narrative that sounds credible, even if the individual cases are hard to prove.
In part this is a response to a new imperative to treat complaints from women about sexual assault more seriously than they were in the past. Keir Starmer QC, until last year the Director of Public Prosecutions, presided over this change in culture.
"In recent years we have worked hard to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes associated with these cases," he said recently. "One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife."
But any assumption that an alleged victim is always telling the truth is a dangerous one to make and cannot be divorced from the absolute requirement to produce as watertight a case as possible.
It was the failure of the authorities to do so in the Roache case that proved their undoing. The fact that the jurors felt compelled to inform the judge during their deliberations in the Travis trial about their concerns over the time that had lapsed since the alleged offences and the absence of any corroborating evidence must give the CPS pause for thought.
In the meantime, as Bill Roache said after his acquittal, there are no winners. The characters of those arrested have been trashed, even if they walk free from court.
In Travis's case, he has had to sell his home to finance his defence. The alleged victims, who have come forward for whatever motive after keeping quiet for the greater part of their lives, will feel aggrieved.
The knock-on impact may be to dissuade other women from complaining to the police – the very opposite of what the judicial system has been trying to achieve for years.