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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What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage