Has anyone noticed the furore around paedophiles in the UK recently? And not just from me. An extensive operation is under way by the metropolitan police and new and well known faces are being questioned, arrested and charged with alarming regularity. So now, finally, after all the pontificating, the moralising, the cries of blue murder and the demands for justice, the judiciary has its first chance to demonstrate its stance on the matter, to lay down the law. Broadcaster Stuart Hall has been found guilty of 15 offences against 13 victims stretching back 25 years. In passing a sentence of just 15 months, the judicial system has, for the victims at least, abjectly failed.
It's worth noting at the outset that these failings are not exclusively those of the presiding judge. He was to a certain extent constrained by the law which required him to sentence according to the maximum possible sentence allowed at the time the crime was committed. It is also true that Hall was entitled to a reduction of his sentence for entering a late plea of guilty, even though he had vigorously protested his innocence up until the last possible moment. The latter has been particularly damaging in this case – and will be in others – as the presiding judge noted the distress caused to the defendants by Hall's categorical denials in the build-up to the trial. Legal issues aside, I'd like to take a minute of your time to consider Hall's crimes and why the sentence should have been significantly longer.
In the first place, there is the severity of the crime to consider. Stuart Hall's barrister entered as mitigation the plea that hall had molested 'only' 13 girls, compared to the 1,300 allegations against Jimmy Saville. This is the equivalent of a serial killer pointing out that his crimes were as nothing compared to the holocaust. The court was also told that these crimes had taken place over a quarter of century ago and that they had been 'touching – no more, no less'. Sorry, no dice. They were children, and their emotional and sexual vulnerability was violated by a man whose celebrity put him in a position of trust which he exploited. There is a strong argument that the most serious affect is ultimately a psychological one and that the damage of trust it creates is the most severe impact it results it. This alone is enough to damage victims' abilities to forge relationships, to trust, to value themselves and even to like themselves. It can lead to self-harming, alcohol dependency, drug use, overdosing, suicide attempts and countless other issues. I know quite a few abuse survivors and none of them, years or even decades later, have got over it.
So there's the crime, now what about the criminal? Well, Hall has pleaded guilty so he gets a reduced sentence. But how has this little legal loophole helped anyone other than the perpetrator (as I can now legally call him)? It hasn't helped the public purse, because we had to fork out for the prosecution before he changed his mind at the 11th hour. It sure as hell hasn't helped the victims, because Hall was publicly bleating about his innocence, the appallingness of the crime he was accused of (the crime he committed) and even accusing his victims of being liars. So it's a bit late to claim he's shown remorse, and he's made the life as difficult as possible for everyone except… ooh himself. So, no points there.
Meanwhile, it was pointed out to the court that he was a 'confused old man'. This of course is just because he concealed the truth of his crimes for such a long time. It's also worth noting that he wasn't so confused when he committed the crimes, or half as confused as the victims. The impact of the crime is unlikely to have magically depreciated over time- why should he be let off lightly for getting away with it? Which leads me, almost as if I had planned it (I haven't) to my final point.
What is the message this sentence sends out? Many perpetrators of child sex crimes don't get confronted by their crimes in court until a long time after their offences. So the good news for these people is that you can plead old and pathetic if you can get away with it long enough. You can plead that it was 'in the past' or 'a long time ago'. Other good news: you'll only get sentenced according to the rules at the time you committed the crime, so if it wasn't thought a big deal at the time, you're doing well. You now have a quota to work to, because abusing less than 13 people can be argued to be hardly abuse at all. And if you're a victim then you have to wonder whether it's worth the stress you will go through if your abuser is going to get off so lightly. One of the few dreams you can hang on to is 'at least they will never be free to hurt anyone ever again'. But Hall could be out in seven months. No, this sentence does little good, and desperately needs not to be template for future cases. On the bright side, one thing the victims can know, can remember, every time they are confronted with Hall's face in the paper, on the television, ever again, is 'Everyone knows what you did'.