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Commissioner Baird Comments on Article is Free (Guardian Newspaper) regarding the Conviction of Max Clifford

29th April 2014

When a famous man is acquitted of sexual assault, there is always an outcry against the people who accused him and often against the criminal justice system for giving them airspace. Let us hope, if not expect, that the conviction of Max Clifford brings equal outcry against men who commit sexual abuse.

The key to abuse is power – from the abuser over abused. Although sexual assault occurs across society, men of influence or standing, carrying an extra sparkle of fame, can be especially prey to a sense of entitlement. Their victims often do not understand that they are being groomed. They think that Mr Powerful is giving them special attention because he thinks they are a very special person. When the truth becomes clear, they are ashamed of their own foolish belief and also feel violated.

It is a frightening prospect for a victim to speak out, by definition now psycho-emotionally wounded but perhaps vulnerable in the first place. The imbalance of power in our still patriarchal society, makes this equally scary even where women, the usual victims, face less powerful men.

The criminal justice system has to encourage complainants to speak out. If justice is blind and should not favour the powerful over the weak, it should not hold back because famous men have credibility. And sexual abuse is serial offending; people do not stop until they are stopped, and every complainant scared of speaking licenses a culprit to tackle future victims.

So, if there is a credible complaint, police should investigate and if that brings a 50% prospect of conviction – the same test the CPS applies to every other kind of case – a prosecution should be pursued.

We also need to learn also what ought to have been obvious – at least since Jimmy Savile – that doing charitable works, or being a good father, as witnesses testified about Clifford, bears no relationship to whether the same man is a sexual abuser. Sexual abusers can live an otherwise respectable life since if they see sex as a legitimate quid pro quo, part of ordinary power dynamics, not venal at all.

The recent clear stance that police and Crown Prosecution Service will not defer to famous men should help to disperse that belief from the population at large. Sexual abuse has a destructive impact on self-belief which makes it a damaging and serious crime.

It is a shame that some of those who are acquitted want to take revenge. Though their target may be their own accusers, in criticising the support those witnesses received from the criminal justice agencies, they risk scaring off real abuse victims.

Granting anonymity for defendants in sexual cases would suggest that there is something weaker or less believable about a complainant in that kind of case – compared to alleged murderers, baby batterers and robbers of old ladies who do receive that protection. Such a change would send out a signal to victims of sexual abuse that they not only have to summon their courage to speak, but will appear at court with an extra disadvantage.

Further complainants came forward when they read that Max Clifford had been charged and that has happened in many other cases and for that reason police and judges oppose any imposition of anonymity.

Every sexual abuse conviction has a tragedy behind it for the victim, but it’s wrong to claim there has been a rush to bad judgment from the criminal justice authorities, driven by a moral panic after Savile. The law is sensible and balanced. We should all join loudly in condemning every kind of sexual abuse, no matter how powerful any of the perpetrators may be.

Vera Baird QC,

Police & Crime Commissioner – Northumbria