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Expert Comment: Police failures in Jimmy Savile scandal

Tuesday 12 March 2013

Award Director of the MSc in Police Leadership, John Phillips, puts forward his views on the recent criticism that the police have received with regards to their 'failures' in the Jimmy Savile scandal.

In the several reports into the Jimmy Savile scandal there is an underlying, and demonstrably valid, assumption: that justice has not been done, and even more culpably has not been seen to be done.

The irony that 'justice is blind' has not been lost on the victims of sexual abuse scarred by their experiences, and then failed by the institutions and systems established to safeguard their persons in a free and just society. Recent reports from Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC), the Crown Prosecution Service, and the NSPCC have shown how justice failed the children and adults caught by the corrupting influence of power, whether the power of celebrity, the power of the establishment, or the power of inertia.

Justice is a concept that challenges our systems. It is readily acknowledged that truth and fairness underpin it, but in respect of the Savile case the police and courts have been found wanting in constructing systems to deliver it. In responding to another abuse of power, Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones in his introduction to the Hillsborough Panel’s report began, 'the fourth century philosopher Lactantius, wrote, “the whole point of justice consists precisely in our providing for others through humanity what we provide for our own family through affection”. ' Humanity may not be so easy to enshrine in our institutions, and in our justice system, especially if 'justice is blind'.

The necessarily oppositional or adversarial system of our prosecution and courts system starves itself, some would argue, of humanity and affection. The search for truth becomes objective and dispassionate, and arid systems and processes take over.

The fallibility of our human systems has been highlighted in the several reports seeking to set out lessons learnt from the scandal. But the lessons are not always so clear because the oppositions are continually in tension. The police have been shown to have got things wrong: allegations were treated too slightly, or so seriously that an inordinately high level of evidential proof was required; information and intelligence were not shared, through malpractice or inefficiency, or to avoid prejudicing enquiries; and police officers may have felt the need to anticipate the judgements of the courts in establishing guilt or innocence, by coming to their own conclusions about the worthiness of complainants or victims of false allegations.

Fair to all and fair to none is the risk but there are clear lessons: the Home Secretary has asked the Home Office to strengthen child protection procedures; the Crown Prosecution Service has agreed to reconsider the nature of complaints even when there is a reluctance on the part of complainants to go to court; and the HMIC has resolved to develop the integrating mechanisms which allow forces to share intelligence.

Meanwhile we might ask if the cult of celebrity that allowed an abuser like Savile to 'hide in plain sight' is today any less, and whether we really have changed our attitudes and values to provide 'for others through humanity what we provide for our own family through affection'.

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