Casting a sceptical eye on sex, media and politics

RSS

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.

Max Clifford outside court. Photo: Getty
Max Clifford outside court. Photo: Getty

“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?