Witch-hunt against Sir Cliff Richard was stampede to judge him, not to seek justice
Sir Cliff Richard is just the latest celebrity to be accused of sex offences in the full glare of publicity only to be given a half-hearted 'apology' when the allegations turn out to be baseless. And they call this justice?
Just because it's Sir Cliff Richard doesn't mean it is right. Last week the shocking murder of Labour MP Jo Cox understandably dominated the news agenda, which meant other stories including the announcement by the Crown Prosecution Service that it was not going to prosecute the 75-year-old singer over allegations of child sex abuse ended up rather lost.
However, that shouldn't mean that we should close our eyes to a national scandal.
After a two-year, very public investigation costing £800,000, a highly publicised raid on his home (with live footage on the BBC after the cops helpfully tipped off the Corporation), appeals for people to come forward and - I am sure - a "rigorous" investigation of every aspect of the singer's past, the file (remember, there is always an important-sounding file) was dismissed in less than three weeks.
South Yorkshire Police has apologised "wholeheartedly for the additional anxiety caused by our initial handling of the media interest in this case", but as Sir Cliff says: "The apology from the police is not enough. It's never going to get rid of what I've been through".
For even acquittals and innocence have a jag. In the normal jargon of the legal system, there is "insufficient evidence" to proceed. Of course, many morons/natural lynch mob material/conspiracy theorists will find great comfort in that word.
"Insufficient". Ah, there is no smoke without fire, they'll say. Sure, I saw the police going into his house on the BBC, they'll maintain.
Actually, we would do well to remind ourselves - as Sir Cliff has done (but why listen to him) - that insufficient evidence includes the category of absolutely no evidence at all. Which, considering the rapid dismissal by the CPS of the evidence, seems to be very near the mark in this case.
The fact that it has now emerged that one of the complainants had been arrested as part of a blackmail plot against the singer before his "complaints" were handled seriously by the police is just another grim Kafkaesque irony in a case - and a police methodology - awash with Kafkaesque ironies.
Because Sir Cliff now joins an ever-growing list of people in public life, alive and dead, whose reputation has been indelibly smeared by little more than internet rumour aided with great gusto by the authorities - Paul Gambaccini, Harvey Proctor, Leon Brittan, Edward Heath ... to name but a few.
Often it appears the evidence has amounted to little more than the crazy whisperings of the fetid swamps of the internet. For the unpalatable truth is that the witch-hunt against Sir Cliff has been brewing for decades and it runs roughly like this:
- Cliff Richard isn't married - he must have something to hide (probably gay).
- Cliff Richard says he's been celibate for decades because of his Christian beliefs - he must have something to hide (probably gay).
- And then the added twist in our so-called enlightened age - a non-active sexual life is so unnatural there must be something awful being hidden away (he must be a paedophile).
It is the madness of the lynch mob, the small-minded and even smaller-hearted. The tragedy is that it happens to thousands in our society. Never married? That's a bit rum. Lives with parents? Very ... ahem ... unusual (if you know what I mean).
Nudge, nudge. A bit of instant gossip and lives are ruined.
Add the spice of "hunt the celebrity" and you have a very vicious spectator sport indeed. Just have a look at some of those subjected to trial by mob/media and authorities.
Gambaccini (openly gay, likes musicals). Harvey (gay, Tory), Edward Heath (unmarried, Tory), Leon Brittan (physically unprepossessing, Tory, Jewish - not even being married could save him from innuendoes).
Their cases represent not a quest for justice, but rather a quest for judgment. We don't like them, don't understand them, therefore they are guilty ... of something. And don't worry - there will always be a website with lashings of "evidence".
Quite rightly after Savile, we have to treat allegations of child sex abuse seriously - and celebrities are just as likely to be child sex abusers as anyone else - witness the appalling story of Sir Clement Freud.
It is our job as a civil society to bring evil-doers to justice. And as part of that process we have to assure those with stories to tell that they will be treated sympathetically. We have to create a space for those to tell their stories to begin the wheels of justice.
But that is a far cry from using big names as "live bait", as Sir Cliff described the experience. It is simply not fair, not just, that allegations are given maximum publicity in the hope of attracting more victims.
And when the allegations go pop, the police mutter a non-apology apology, the CPS hides behind Press releases, the media briefly hang their heads in shame and the online kangaroo courts move on to new victims, or hint at ever-growing conspiracies.
But we'll always remember the scandal, sniggers and innuendo - which, for the innocent, can have devastating consequences. It is simply not acceptable that it took two YEARS to clear Sir Cliff (who was, of course, never charged with anything specific), that Leon Brittan died with his name uncleared, that no one has apologised to Harvey Proctor.
Gambaccini wrote an account of his experience in his book Love, Paul Gambaccini: My Year Under the Yewtree, which one judge has used to criticise what he called the radical undermining of the presumption of innocence.
We are very close to underwriting terrible and arbitrary injustice and lifelong punishments on the innocent in the name of some amorphous greater good.
For no matter that Sir Cliff has an in-depth interview about what he suffered - "I lay on the floor weeping thinking, 'How am I going to climb out of this hole'" - ... mud sticks.
We can be sure that there will be no total rehabilitation for him, Gambaccini, Brittan, or Proctor.
And that is not justice.