There is a character in Orwell’s 1984, Syme, who is arrested by the Thought Police and who disappears. His disappearance is complete – he does not merely cease to exist, but his entire history is erased; he has never existed.
It was, ironically, in 1984 that I briefly, and literally, ran into somebody who was to become a non-person. I was running in the Glasgow marathon and, around the 10k mark, I recall we ran up Queen Margaret Drive in Glasgow’s west end, ironically again, (with hindsight), past the BBC. For a few minutes I passed the time of day with a robust-looking middle-aged man of middle height. He wore a running vest and running shoes of gaudy colours and shorts so lurid as to be incandescent. I remember he seemed to be surrounded by a protective entourage. I have no doubt he was running for a good cause, perhaps for many. He was affable and chatty. I think we mostly discussed the weather.
Now of course, like Syme, Saville is a non-person. He never existed. Imagine all the archived footage of Top of the Pops and Jim’ll Fix It that can never be shown. This is what happens when you blot your copybook. You get written out. When people started making allegations against Kevin Spacey he was airbrushed out of a film he’d just made and his role was handed to Christopher Plummer. Spacey as director of the Old Vic had a huge profile in the UK but he has vanished completely.
So I quite see why Sir Cliff Richard got so exercised about the way the BBC covered the story of the allegations made against him. They used a helicopter to film a police swoop on his Berkshire home, while he was abroad. As it turned out, he had no case to answer. Had it gone the other way, he would have been finished, not merely in the sense that he could never have performed again, but in that his entire life’s work would have been “disappeared”.
When the court found in favour of Sir Cliff, the BBC indicated they were considering an appeal. The case revolved round issues of the freedom of the press to report issues of public interest versus the right of the individual to privacy. We are familiar with these issues because of the efforts of tabloid newspapers to infiltrate the lives of celebrities through phone-hacking. The actor Hugh Grant is a prominent, and very eloquent spokesman for Hacked Off. The use of covert means by the tabloid press to investigate the death of the teenager Milly Dowler became a focal point for a cause célѐbre, leading to the Leveson Inquiry and an attempt to regulate the activities of the press, which thus far has made little headway.
With respect to Sir Cliff, the opinion of the court was that the televised coverage had been over the top, and that the BBC had been seduced by the lure of the scoop rather than by any high minded devotion toward the public good. The BBC has decided not to appeal. I suspect this is a pragmatic and calculated decision, not just in the sense that the corporation might lose the appeal, but in that public sympathy will be on the side of an exonerated Sir Cliff. I think it less likely that the BBC would back down quite simply because they are persuaded that they got it wrong.
The allegation of historic crimes of sexual abuse levelled against the late Sir Edward Heath raised parallel issues. I recall hearing a very remarkable interview on the BBC with Sir Richard Henriques, a retired high court judge who was particularly perturbed that the police should dub complainants as “victims” before a case was proven. The police counterargument was that the conferring of victimhood status, and indeed the publicity afforded to police investigations of prominent individuals prior to any charges being brought, would encourage other “victims” to come forward. But might a modus operandi that amounts to collusion between police and press not also encourage fantasists to come forward? The counterargument, that fantasy is extremely unusual and that people making allegations of historic abuse really ought to be believed, is surely in itself fantastic. We may see this position as a swing of the pendulum from one extreme to another. After all, we may ask of Saville, how on earth did he get away with it? He seemed to have been immune to criticism, a man with powerful allies, protected by his own celebrity. Understandably, the police now wish to be seen to be willing and able to investigate anybody, without fear or favour. Yet Sir Richard Henriques’ point seems to me to be well made. If a defendant remains innocent until proven guilty, then it follows that the testimony of the complainant must be held in doubt until it is proved to be true, itself beyond reasonable doubt.
We live in an incredibly pharisaic age, an age of virtue signalling and finger-pointing. Anybody who writes about political issues, and contemporary society, has the sensation of walking on egg shells each time he addresses issues of race, gender, sex and sexuality. You sometimes see a writer being hauled over the coals for expressing a view which just happens to be anathema to the zeitgeist. Then he has that look about him of a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car that is about to run him down.
Was the biblical King David a monster? I suppose he was. He lusted after Bathsheba, when he caught sight of her bathing. (Who among us hasn’t done that?) So he had sex with her, and she got pregnant. He organised for her husband, Uriah the Hittite (who was under military command and supposed to be celibate) to go home to her, so to cover up what he’d done, but Uriah stuck to his creed. So David sent him into battle, and to the most dangerous sector of the front line, essentially in order to murder him. In all this, he succeeded. Then Nathan the prophet came along and told David an allegory about a powerful person who took terrible advantage of a poor person. “You are that man.”
Yet still we sing the Psalms of David.
(A sobering thought: nobody under the age of about 50 will have any idea what I’m talking about.)
G.K. Chesterton was once asked what he thought was the biggest problem in the world today, and he replied. “Me.” I think I know what he meant. I feel like saying, “No G.K., not you, it’s me.” Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.