Sunday 14 October 2012

One-eyed justice

The case of Jimmy Savile throws a curiously sidelight on the human condition: that a man during the latter part of his life, and at his death, may be virtually sanctified, as the great giver to charity, the selfless star, loveable eccentric, everybody's favourite uncle, virtually a permanent TV "Father Christmas", a man worthy to name charitable foundations, and streets, after – and then a few months later he can become the devil incarnate, the charities renamed, street signs removed, fancy-dress taken off the shelves, lo, even his own gravestone destroyed.

It is bizarre – because whatever good works he did in his lifetime, and for which he was knighted, they did happen. He wasn't the devil incarnate. He was clearly a deeply-flawed human being. And even if all allegations are true, he wasn't the worst of criminals. Our attitude to child abuse today does border on the hysterical, and this is a historical cultural anomaly which must be corrected in time. Child abuse is a very bad crime, but is not murder, and (as Ruth Sutherland, Director of Relate, said on Radio 4's Any Questions? on Friday) its victims can and do recover, in many cases, to lead happy and productive adult lives. People who are killed, either by malice or carelessness, cannot recover. And the law recognises that child abuse is not the worst of crimes, by not attaching to it the most severe sentence possible in our jurisdiction, life imprisonment (though if the law were written today from scratch, one suspects the hysteria of the times would give a different result).

The fascination with the Savile case, I suspect, is not just due to the institutional implications, not just because we wonder who at the BBC knew, whom of Savile's colleagues and friends knew, why complaints were not taken seriously by numerous authorities, and why Saville was given such unfettered access to vulnerable young people by careless institutions, but because, we can all see, or imagine, now (all of those of use who lived through the period) that we all should have been able to detect it. For Savile, in a way, did not hide his predilections at all – they were perfectly integrated into his personality and image, so being hidden by being so obvious, so blatantly on-show. The way in which he managed this can now be seen, in retrospect, as sheer criminal genius. For anybody could see this elderly man frolicking with young girls on their screens on Top of the Pops. Everybody could see him cosying up to the under-age on Jim'll Fix It. Everybody could see the "inappropriate" (in the words of one of his accusers, from Duncroft School in Surrey) clothing he wore while around young people. But it was all normal for him, it was "just Jimmy", what he did. So he seems to have gotten away with seriously criminal behaviour for a lifetime.

A (female) friend of mine posted on Facebook:
Why is everyone so surprised that Jimmy Savile was never investigated? Every day victims are ignored, police don't investigate, the CPS doesn't charge, juries don't convict and rapists walk free. Roman Polanski has celebrities lining up to defend his actions even though he is a convicted rapist who escaped before he could be sentenced, and the tide of public opinion is still in favour of Julian Assange not to face questioning over allegations made against him.
Indeed (though not to say anything particular about the cases of Polanski or Assange). For though justice is supposed to be "blind", the criminal justice system is actually always one-eyed. It sees crime selectively, only in certain places, and from certain people. It is easy to rewrite the second sentence in that quote from my friend, to refer truly to a different type of crime, and one of particular interest to most followers of this blog:
Every day victims are ignored, police don't investigate, the CPS doesn't charge, juries don't convict and criminal drivers walk free.
Like PC David Lynch, convicted this week of dangerous driving that left London musician Joseph Belmonte with "castrophic injuries", who walked free from court with a suspended sentence. Like Jon Fields, convicted of careless driving that caused the death of cyclist Andrew Hutton in Teeside, who also last month walked free from court: just two recent examples. The latter case also shows how accused motorists' defences can often be incredibly weak, as in Fields' line "He just came out of nowhere" (on a straight road with excellent visibility and no junctions), and yet this does not seem to offset British judges' predilection for derisory punishments in such cases.  Martin Porter, the Cycling Lawyer, notes:
After 9 months, my analysis of careless driving cases is starting to demonstrate how rare immediate custodial sentences are for motorists who kill cyclists. 

The A174 where Andrew Hutton was killed by John Fields
The abused can recover, those killed on the roads through negligent driving cannot. Neither can many of those maimed properly recover. Many will see a difference in intentionality and responsibility when comparing a crime of individual assault on a known person to a (usually) more random one of causing death or injury to a road-user by careless or dangerous driving. But the way that this translates into the procedures of the British justice system as it currently stands mean that most victims of road crime (or their surviving loved-ones) go away feeling profoundly that justice has not been done, and, furthermore, that the deterrent effect of the law is inadequate to prevent tragedies from being repeated.

The Crown Prosecution Service is currently consulting on draft guidance on charging offences arising from driving incidents, and there will be a debate in Parliament on 17 October, in response to campaigning by British Cycling, on how road crime victims are treated by the justice system. This needs to consider all sides of the issue, not just charging. The attitudes and procedures of the police, the Home Office, the CPS, prosecutors, and judges are all part of the jigsaw that goes together to give victims of road crime a very poor deal currently.

As British Cycling say:
It is clear to us that the current justice system often delivers results which send the wrong message about the right of people to ride safely on the roads. Most of our members are car drivers so we do not believe this is a car versus cyclist issue. We believe the review we are calling for is an essential element in building a better culture of mutual respect on the roads where incidents which result in death and injury are treated in a way which is fair to everyone concerned and creates the right incentives for people to behave responsibly.
"It's not a car versus cyclist issue" say British Cycling (driver versus cyclist, surely), but ultimately I suspect that the difficulty in getting justice for cyclists and pedestrians killed and maimed on our roads does revolve around the facts that cyclists are a small minority, and though pedestrains are not a minority, those who are not also car drivers are predominantly from groups such as children, the diabled and elderly, that is, those in positions of lesser power. Drivers are the majority power in the land, and the investigating, prosecuting and sentencing authorities are likely to be more sympathetically at one with them than they are with the victims. Getting justice for minorities has always been difficult, and justice for those in positions of lesser power, as the Savile case shows, is more difficult still.