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.

Photo: Getty
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Why gay men love this photo of Prince George looking fabulous

It's not about sexuality, but resisting repressive ideas about what masculinity should be.

Last week’s royal tour by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge provided the most intimate view of the young family to date. Throughout the five-day visit to Poland and Germany, it was the couple’s adorable children who stole the spotlight.

As George and Charlotte become better acquainted with a world in which everyone recognises them, this level of public scrutiny is something that will no doubt have to be carefully managed by the family.

But there is one particular image from the trip that has both captured people’s hearts and prompted debate. On the eve of his fourth birthday, Prince George was invited behind the driver’s seat of a helicopter in Germany. Immaculately dressed in a purple gingham shirt neatly tucked in to navy shorts, the future King is pictured staring out of the helicopter in awe.

As a man who was visibly gay from a young age, the distinctly feminine image of George smiling as he delicately places his hands on his face instantly struck a chord with me. In fact, an almost identical photograph of five-year-old me happily playing in the garden is hung on my parents' kitchen wall. Since the photos appeared online, thousands of other gay men have remarked that the innocence of this image reminds them of childhood. In one viral tweet, the picture is accompanied by the caption: “When mom said I could finally quit the soccer team.” Another user remarks: “Me walking past the Barbies at Toys ‘R’ Us as a child.”

Gay men connecting this photograph of Prince George with their childhood memories has been met with a predictable level of scorn. “Insinuating that Prince George is gay is just the kind of homophobia you’d be outraged by if it was you," tweets one user. “Gay men should know better than that. He is a CHILD," says another.

Growing up gay, I know how irritating it can be when everyone needs to “know” your sexual orientation before you do. There are few things more unhelpful than a straight person you barely know telling you, as they love to do, that they “always knew you were gay” years after you came out. This minimises the struggle it took to come to terms with your sexuality and makes you feel like everyone was laughing at you behind your back as you failed to fit in.

I also understand that speculating about a child's future sexual orientation, especially from one photograph, has potential to cause them distress. But to assume that gay men tweeting this photograph are labelling Prince George is a misunderstanding of what we take from the image.

The reaction to this photo isn’t really about sexuality; it’s about the innocence of childhood. When I look at the carefree image of George, it reminds me of those precious years in early childhood when I didn’t know I was supposed to be manly. The time before boys are told they should like “boy things”, before femininity becomes associated with weakness or frivolity. Thanks to a supportive environment created by my parents, I felt that I could play with whichever toys I wanted for those short years before the outside world pressured me to conform.

Effeminate gay men like me have very specific experiences that relate to growing up in a heteronormative world. It is incredibly rare to see anything that remotely represents my childhood reflected in popular culture. This image has prompted us to discuss our childhoods because we see something in it that we recognise. In a community where mental illness and internalised homophobia are rife, sharing memories that many of us have suppressed for years can only be a good thing.

People expressing outrage at any comparisons between this image and growing up gay should remember that projecting heterosexuality on to a child is also sexualising them. People have no problem assuming that boys are straight from a young age, and this can be equally damaging to those who don’t fit the mould. I remember feeling uncomfortable when asked if my female friends were my girlfriends while I was still in primary school. The way young boys are taught to behave based on prescribed heterosexuality causes countless problems. From alarmingly high suicide rates to violent behaviour, the expectation for men to be tough and manly hurts us all.

If you are outraged at the possibility that the future king could perhaps be gay, but you are happy to assume your son or nephew is heterosexual, you should probably examine why that is. This not only sends out the message that being gay is wrong, but also that it is somehow an embarrassment if we have a gay King one day. Prince William appeared on the cover of Attitude magazine last year to discuss LGBT bullying, so we can only hope he will be supportive of his son regardless of his future sexuality.

Whether Prince George grows up to be heterosexual or not is completely irrelevant to why this image resonates with people like me. It is in no way homophobic to joke about this photograph if you don't see a boy being feminine as the lesser, and the vast majority of posts that I’ve seen come from a place of warmth, nostalgia and solidarity. 

What really matters is that Prince George feels supported when tackling the many obstacles that his unique life in the spotlight will present. In the meantime, we should all focus on creating a world where every person is accepted regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, because clearly we’ve got some way to go.