Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 21 August 2014

Arrested celebs are guilty ... until proven innocent

So Rolf Harris had been arrested months before but it only came out a few weeks ago to a chorus of speculation but no charges yet. The release of his name to the press was never formally sanctioned but no one seemed overly bothered about the fact he hadn't been charged, the moment traditionally when two things happen – the suspect's identity enters the public domain and public comment ceases until the trial.

Bill Roache was scooped in public, is still not charged, but is nonetheless sensationally rolling his way through newsprint. Jimmy Tarbuck heard his rights read to him on April 26, still uncharged, and has been meat and two veg for the hacks ever since. Now, Jim Davidson was arrested as far back as January, was bailed again last Friday, still not charged, but has been open to all varieties of innuendo, including that one of the cases against him involves an assault on the Falklands.

No, not that he was behind the Argentinian invasion, but that he made unwelcome advances on a lady or ladies during an entertainment tour after the war.

Whatever about the realities of that allegation – offences occurring in the Falklands need to be tried there; Falklands cops haven't the resources so ask the Met to do the investigation. The Met's evidence will help the Falklands' Attorney General to decide if Davidson should be charged on the islands.

What they can all do quite happily, though, is watch while these diplomatic niceties play out in the public eye with one much-despised comedian in the middle of it like the maypole.

Indeed, all these cases are in effect a breach of the traditional code whereby only those charged were identified. Now those too who are merely arrested get identified. Yes, there's a certain queasiness in the police about such things, but, strangely, they are turning a blind eye to names being unofficially confirmed by them to the media.

Haven't we been here before just months ago with the Leveson Inquiry? Are we really in favour of the police and the meejah keeping each other at a long-enough arm's length to stop a hack's mitt dropping a crumpled envelope into a bent copper's tunic pocket?

Or are we only in favour of that when it suits us? The rest of the time, well, isn't it just a hoot to expose grubby old men to ridicule and career termination without charging them on sturdy evidence. A remarkable comment from the police on the release of Rolf's name was that there was both evidence enough to arrest him and it was in the public interest.

That's a new one on me. In the public interest to make it known that Mr X has simply been arrested? Which definition of public interest would that be, then, officer?

Now arrest is a bad thing and is a step taken no less lightly by the police than by the individual who finds himself bundled into a car with a copper's nurturing paw on the top of the head so he doesn't hurt his bonce. But while points may mean prizes, arrests – as we know well in Northern Ireland – do not mean charges, any more than trials mean convictions.

Worse, it's a symptom of how internet gossip feeds the rumour monster, the Kit-E-Kat, which forces names out into the open and is fed in return pouches of high-grade Applaws by the police themselves.

The police gain the public sense of 'action being taken' especially during a period when the integrity of the service has never been more in question – Hillsborough, Stephen Lawrence and Leveson, plus the mishandling and misogyny which kept all the assault cases off the radar for 40 years during the stars' heydays.

No wonder commentators have already suggested this is a policy of 'name a suspect' first in order to appeal to the public to bring along evidence of dodgy character.

Maybe they're all guilty as hell. Maybe they'll all be charged. Maybe they'll get to trial and all – to a man – be convicted. But that won't undo the practice of the police assisting, even by default and secretly, the naming of an arrested person for public consumption and to appeal to the public to come running with evidence to justify a charge.

The problem is, it won't only apply to obviously guilty murderers and psychopathic child-killers. Last week, Cleveland Police agreed to pay more than half a million to a Teesside solicitor who was, unbelievably, wrongly imprisoned.

James Watson was arrested on suspicion of perverting the course of justice and locked in a police station for 29 hours in June 2009. In the end, not charged with any offence, no evidence against him.

And he wasn't famous enough to have his name interestingly leaked.

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