Max Clifford outside court. Photo: Getty
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We must not hide Max Clifford's crimes behind a veil of euphemisms

The media has reported Max Clifford's crimes in vague terms - as "abuse" or "grooming". But in trying to protect ourselves, we are making it easier to minimise what he did.

“The other thing worth noting is that some public figures who have complained about Operation Yewtree have subsequently been arrested themselves,” Spiked! editor Mick Hume wrote in January last year, comparing the investigation to a ‘witch hunt’. “The PR guru Max Clifford also spoke out early in the inquiry, noting that many of his older celebrity clients were panicking because they had lived ‘hedonistic’ lifestyles in the 1970s. Shortly afterwards, Clifford was also arrested on suspicion of abuse.”

Sixteen months later, Max Clifford has been convicted. The details of his crimes are so abhorrent that it’s actually difficult to write them down. Nonetheless, that’s what Judge Anthony Leonard took great pains to do in his sentencing remarks (PDF here); but in spite of his efforts, journalists seem reluctant to report anything more than the broadest outline. 

Most have resorted to vague abstractions; editors happy to report the bloody details of war are suddenly squeamish at the prospect of documenting sexual assault. The BBC report speaks vaguely of ‘abuse’, the Guardian mentions ‘molestation’, the Daily Mail talk about ‘grooming’ in an otherwise admirable article - one of the few to turn the spotlight on the celebrities who backed him. Mick Hume, at the reliably pro-establishment Spiked!, has doubled down on his ignorance, speaking of “young women who accused Clifford of groping them, sticking his tongue down their throat or ‘forcing them to perform sex acts’.”

Reading these accounts brings to mind an impression of an eccentric ‘creepy uncle’, groping women and smacking bottoms -  the kinds of behaviour that may have been tolerated back in the seventies, but falls foul of modern standards. Indeed, many reporters have used variations of the clunky line, “had some of offences been tried under today's law, they would be considered as rape or assault by penetration”. Not a single mainstream report that I’ve seen has given any real hint as to the true nature of Clifford’s crimes, even as many of his supporters have sought to minimise them.

So what did he do? (The following, taken from the judge's sentencing remarks, may be upsetting to some readers.)

One victim was just 15 years old. Clifford told her that she was pretty, and “began to groom her by telling her that she could be the UK’s version of Jodie Foster”, He made her show him her breasts, “though she did not want to”. He visited her home and gained the trust of her parents, who let him take their daughter out on numerous evenings, assuming she was meeting important career contacts.  Parking the car in various hiding spots, he would pull out his erect penis, and show the young girl how to masturbate him, instructing her to do so as a demonstration of trust. 

“On one occasion you penetrated her with two of your fingers”, the sentencing remarks continue. “On another occasion you degraded her by taking her to buy a revealing Wonderbra and then taking her to the home of a friend of yours and telling her to dress in bra and pants and try to seduce the man whilst you watched.” At other times he told her to perform oral sex on him. “You instructed her how to do it and criticized her performance.”

The second time that Clifford coerced the 15-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him, he told her that on the previous occasion “a photographer had taken photographs from a position so close in the bushes that you could see her freckles on the photograph”. The Judge comments, “If this was your attempt to make her even more subservient to your wishes, it backfired.” Unable to speak to her family or friends, terrified that she would be exposed, the young girl became suicidal, and threatened to kill herself. “I do not judge that it was an idle threat.”

Another girl, a 12-year-old friend of his daughter, was targeted during a holiday. Clifford: "Having groomed her by playing a tickling game with her in the swimming pool, you got her parents’ permission to take her to a Jacuzzi in the hotel complex. . . Whilst your daughter was absent and you were in the Jacuzzi with the 12-year-old you put your hand down her bikini and onto her pubic mound and asked if she was ticklish there. You then got hold of her hand and moved it onto your erect penis and started moving her hand up and down quite slowly. You stopped when your daughter came to the Jacuzzi."

A third victim mentioned was 17 (or possibly 18, if it matters to anyone who isn’t Mick Hume) when she came to Clifford looking to start a modelling career. On a pretext, the agent told her to remove her dress so that he could "assess" her. He then began to masturbate in front of the presumably mortified girl as she put her dress back on, continuing as he took a call from his wife.

“When you had finished the call you came over to her and tried to get her to take your erect penis in her mouth whilst you continued to masturbate. You were trying to force your penis into her mouth, even putting your hand round her head to force it in and you managed to achieve a partial entry. You ejaculated over the left side of her face but mainly on her collar bone.”

That is the reality that the BBC, The Guardian, the Mail, Spiked! and others are carefully ‘protecting’ the public from. There are those who may find it upsetting, but if people aren’t upset and shocked by the crimes of Max Clifford then journalists aren’t doing their jobs properly. I appreciate that there are arguments for restraint, for not causing additional distress or using lurid prose to attract page views; but the problem is this nearly always benefits the abusers more than anybody else.

Violence against women is routinely reported in a sort of pale abstraction, with their voices invariably reduced or silence altogether. More air time was given to Clifford’s prancing behind a Sky reporter than to the accounts of his victims. Earlier this year, Mary Beard wrote: “In making a public case, in fighting their corner, in speaking out, what are women said to be? ‘Strident’; they ‘whinge’ and they ‘whine’.” In February 2013, she told the New York Times that she had republished the worst abuse which followed her Question Time appearance on her blog so that people could judge it for themselves. "You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it, and so it came to look as if I was worried that they said I hadn’t done my hair. What was said was pornographic, violent, sexist, misogynist and also frightfully silly."

You can see the same dynamic at work in coverage of Yewtree: “Stop making a fuss dear, it was 30 years ago, it wasn’t that bad.”

Our failure as a society to face up to the true extent of these horrors feeds into the same culture of denial and selective blindness that allowed people like Jimmy Savile and Clifford to operate with impunity for so long.  It lets them to be regarded as ‘creepy uncles’ when in reality they are ruthless and manipulative monsters, serial predators who destroyed careers, families and lives.

Above all, it protects the others who are still out there, lurking in the shadows. At least two other unnamed people – possibly more – feature in the Judge’s remarks on Clifford. There’s the friend who watched as Clifford made a 15-year-old girl dance in her underwear for him; another incident involves a co-conspirator at the other end of a phone call, posing as Bond producer Cubby Broccoli.

It’s worth remembering that sexual assault, contrary to popular misconception, is not usually a one-off crime of passion. As I wrote last year, in a summary of David Lisek’s definitive review of sexual assault research: “The average rapist is acquainted with the victim. He is motivated more by power, anger and a desire to control, than by sexual impulse. His attacks – and he is likely to be a serial offender – are often premeditated. He uses sophisticated strategies and psychological manipulation to identify, groom and isolate victims. He is likely to have committed other violent crimes, such as the abuse of children or partners.”

Who were these accomplices? What else were they involved in, and with whom? I’d very much like to know. But never mind. It was 30 years ago now. Does it really matter? Going on some kind of ‘deranged witch hunt seems a bit disproportionate. Haven’t the police got better things to do? 

Martin Robbins is a Berkshire-based researcher and science writer. He writes about science, pseudoscience and evidence-based politics. Follow him on Twitter as @mjrobbins.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.