In the wake of the great Jimmy Savile so-called child sexual abuse scandal of 2012, there has been a whole series of prosecutions of similarly high-profile figures in the UK for alleged sex offences. Interestingly, these are now producing a crop of acquittals as juries refuse to take the word of those claiming to be victims.

Most recent of them was that of Nigel Evans, a former deputy speaker of the House of Commons, hence quite a lynchpin of the country’s democratic governance. He was cleared of all charges this month, having been accused by seven men of offences ranging from molestation to rape. This followed the earlier acquittals of Michael Le Vell and Bill Roache, stars of Coronation Street, the world’s longest-running TV soap opera, and Dave Lee Travis, a DJ whose radio show emerged as a surprise favourite of Nobel peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader.

These cases were driven by a bandwagon factor. The Savile saga started a fashion for previously silent “victims” to come forward “bravely” with allegations of “historic abuse” from years earlier. A feature of most of these manifestations of victim culture was multiple accusers: it looks as though police and prosecutors were hoping to find strength in numbers: never mind the quality of the evidence, feel the quantity.

Now that these tactics have failed, mercifully, a backlash against prosecutorial zealotry has already started. This has to be a good thing, but it leaves open a question that has been with us since the Savile bandwagon began to roll. In that case, the “perpetrator” died before he could be brought to trial. But, as was noted by sceptics at the time, that did not stop the police pouring vast resources into gathering more and more Savile abuse yarns. Why?

There is an admirable BBC radio series called The Long View, which offers a historical perspective on current issues. I think it is time for us to follow that example:

In June 1494, a piglet was taken into custody in Clermont, France, for having “strangled and defaced a young child in its cradle”. It seems that the suspect would have been confined in the same cell and treated in much the same way as a human prisoner, before being tried in front of a court “as justice and reason would desire and require”. Witnesses were summoned and cross-examined, and once satisfied of the defendant’s guilt, the court held that the pig be “strangled on a gibbet of wood” so that “an example may be made and justice maintained”. (Grayshott, 2013)

The above is from a review of Animal Trials by Edward Payson Evans, first published in 1906 and reissued last year. According to Evans, such trials were commonplace, forming part of the fabric of medieval European justice. It wasn’t just pigs in the pillory or dogs in the dock. The courts put on trial an entire Noah’s Ark of criminal creatures including “caterpillars, flies, locusts, leeches, snails, slugs, worms, weevils, rats, mice, moles, turtle doves, pigs, bulls, cows, cocks, dogs, asses, mules, mares and goats”.

Great care was taken to observe due process and ensure a fair trial. In 1314, a bull was taken into custody by the officers of the Comte de Valois, after it escaped onto a road and killed someone. The death sentence was passed and carried out, but an appeal court later ruled that the bull had been wrongfully arrested, thus overturning the verdict on a technicality. In the case of a condemned French donkey, an appeal and retrial resulted in a sentence of hanging being commuted to being “simply knocked on the head”. Sometimes, the accused would be acquitted.

Some animals were accused along with their owners. In cases of bestiality, both parties were usually burned at the stake. In one case, from Vanves in 1750, an entire community formally swore to the good character of a female ass. The beast, their statement read, “had always shown herself to be virtuous and well behaved both at home and abroad and had never given occasion of scandal to anyone”.

We started with a question. What was the point of the police throwing resources into the Savile case, an apparently irrational exercise because you cannot bring a dead man to justice? These animal trials invite a very similar question. What was the purpose of all this elaborate ritual invested in the criminalization of beasts who knew nothing of the law or of any obligation to obey it? Punishing one animal would not deter another from similar transgressions.

Evans demonstrated that these trials were not meant as an exercise in preventive justice. The owners of the guilty animals were not generally held responsible, and were sometimes even compensated for the loss occasioned by the execution of their animals. The trials were actually part of an even longer tradition, going back to ancient times, in which inanimate objects were “punished”. In Athens, there were laws which required weapons that had killed people to be publicly condemned before being thrown beyond the boundaries of the city state. A statue of the athlete Nikon which had been pushed from its pedestal, crushing one of its assailants to death, was brought before a tribunal and sentenced to be cast into the sea.

Evans concluded that such acts should be seen as solemn acts of expiation by which the community could cleanse itself of things that had offended against the natural order, irrespective of the notional guilt of an animal or a thing. We will do well to note that astute observation carefully: there are times when innocence and guilt are not really the issue, even though the formal apparatus of justice proceeds as if it were. Far more important may be the perceived enormity of what has happened, an enormity which demands an equally great ritual response, no matter how preposterous the Theatre of Absurdity generated thereby.

Note, too, that what counts is perceived enormity. If your crops and vines are utterly laid waste by a plague of locusts, or if someone has been killed by an animal, the enormity of the event is obviously very real, and the psychological need for an act of expiation is easily understood. But not all such psychological need is so grounded in tangible ills. In more religious times than our own, transgressions against sexual mores would have been seen as putting oneself in dire peril of everlasting suffering in Hell. The fact that this peril is all in the mind does not make it any the less horrible, or real as a crippling fear.

In our own times, there is less fretting over Hell but perhaps much more anxiety over missing out in the here and now. Modern advertising relentlessly pushes a sense of entitlement (“because you’re worth it!”), but what happens when people find they are not actually worth it? What is to be done when their shitty zero hours “job” is screaming at them, you’re worth fuck all, mate? Whether it’s material insecurity and failure in a relentlessly changing and competitive global economy, or personal relationship calamities in the fragile nuclear family, millions find that life has failed to live up to its billing in the glossy lifestyle mags.

But, never mind, capitalism is on hand to sell them other dodgy goods. The first task of the advertisers is to take the toxic brand called “personal failure” and repackage it as something more appealing and saleable, namely “victimhood”. Personal failure is a tough sell because our egos won’t let us think ill of ourselves if we can find a more palatable solution. As victims, though, we can be sold all sorts of stuff acceptably, from anti-depressants to therapy, on the basis that someone else is to blame for our troubles. Party politics gets in on the act by competitively pandering to the victim vote. A sign of the times is that former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who led the charge to reverse the “innocent until proven guilty” principle in the case of Jimmy Savile, is now rumoured to be seeking a political career on the back of this all-too-successful populist campaign.

For a bid to restore some balance and sanity to our view of Savile see the excellent blog by “rabbitaway”, including (but not only) the 18 April piece, “When Irish eyes are smiling!”

 

Grayshott, M., “The Pig Walked Free”, review in the London Review of Books, Vol. 35 No. 23, pages 37-38 (5 December 2013)