TIME Opinion

Social Media Gossip Fuels Bigotry as U.K. Investigates Sex Abuse

Sir Cliff Richard seen arriving at Wimbledon on July 04, 2014 in London.
Sir Cliff Richard seen arriving at Wimbledon on July 04, 2014 in London. Alex Huckle—GC Images

Police search Brit pop star Cliff Richard's home in latest look at allegations of past abuse

The pop singer Cliff Richard seems not to have been the first person to learn on Thursday that police were searching his apartment in Berkshire, England, in response to allegations “of a sexual nature dating back to the 1980s [that] involved a young boy under the age of 16 years.” Richard issued a sharply worded denial, calling the allegations, that had circulated on social media for some time, completely false. “Up until now I have chosen not to dignify the false allegations with a response, as it would just give them more oxygen. However, the police attended my apartment in Berkshire today without notice, except, it would appear, to the press,” he said. Media camped outside the apartment published pictures of officers arriving at the premises and supplied further details alleging that the allegations related to a June 1985 rally held by the U.S. preacher Billy Graham in the northern English city of Sheffield.

Meanwhile, police stressed that the investigation was at a very early stage. That some commentators on social media chose to ignore such niceties is regrettable but not surprising. The courts of Facebook and Twitter have often shown themselves to harbor all the regard for evidence of a Salem magistrate prosecuting charges of witchcraft in 17th century Massachusetts. This tendency has been exacerbated in the U.K. by a series of horrifying revelations that started after the Oct. 2011 death of serial pedophile Jimmy Savile. The British TV personality had used his fame to shield himself against inquiry and abuse his many victims with impunity.

Operation Yewtree, the police investigation launched in response to the Savile scandal, expanded to look into a range of unrelated allegations of sexual abuse amid public outrage that the British establishment appeared to have turned a blind eye to crimes committed by its own. The police have already decided not to continue with inquiries into six people, some of them publicly named, because of lack of evidence. Other investigations and legal processes are under way and two have led to convictions, of the publicist Max Clifford and in June of this year of an Australian entertainer once beloved of British audiences, Rolf Harris. Separate inquiries are in train into a swirl of allegations linking Cyril Smith, a former MP who died in 2010, to a Westminster pedophile ring and abuse in schools from the 1960s through several decades. The officers who searched Cliff Richard’s house are part of another investigation again. Having failed for so long, the authorities seem intent on revisiting the past to try to make amends.

Justice served late is better than no justice; any halfway credible allegation of abuse should be investigated, however old and whether or not its target is famous and, like Savile, lauded for charitable works by Prime Ministers and royals. Yet increasingly the focus on possible historical abuse carries uncomfortable resonances, not cleansing but prurient, and feeding into narratives that seek to question lifestyles that fail to fit outdated models of the nuclear family. “This isn’t good news for single older men like me,” said a taxi driver listening to a news bulletin about the search of Richard’s property.

Richard never married. That fact shouldn’t be regarded as any meaningful guide to his sexuality, much less an implication of criminal behavior. But the phrase “unmarried”, frequently deployed as a euphemism for gay, has been freshly endowed with unsavory connotations too, by the focus on unmarried Savile (who turned out to have a predilection for girls though his victims also included boys) and unmarried Smith (whose alleged victims were boys). What is relevant is not whether these victims were male or female but that they were in many cases underaged and that Savile and Smith expertly used positions of power to behave as predators. But instead, each new revelation provokes public reactions that are not only misguided but dangerous. “I always knew there was something wrong with Savile,” Britons are much given to remarking. Well, maybe, but Savile’s single state was no more a reliable signifier of his criminal activities than was his flamboyant dress sense.

There are many things about Cliff Richard that some people find a little unsettling: his amortal determination to hang on to the appearance of youth, the bizarre calendar poses, the relentlessly chirpy public persona, the evangelistic tendencies. These do not mark him out as a guilty man any more than his evangelism—he told a Sheffield newspaper after the Billy Graham event “I go wherever Christians invite me to speak about Jesus. It’s a platform I’ve been given by God”—provides a guarantee of god-fearing behavior.

Sure, social attitudes in the U.K. and many other countries have transformed. We are far more accepting of difference, not least because difference has become the norm, with fewer heterosexual couples marrying or staying married or having children and many more people living in same-sex relationships or alone for a wide variety of reasons. But these changes, and attempts by governments to recognize them, continue to provoke backlashes too. The gay community is one group that has suffered, as strident opponents of same-sex marriage on both sides of the Atlantic have ridiculously and deliberately conflated gay and lesbian relationships with criminality. And unfortunately, when 60 Texas lawmakers claim same-sex marriage could encourage pedophilia and bigamy, or when British peer and former Cabinet minister Norman Tebbit suggests such unions risk opening the door to incest, there are receptive audiences for their views.

Stonewall, a British organization campaigning against discrimination, has been concerned by the intersecting hostilities unleashed in the aftermath of Savile and during the debate on gay marriage (which became legal in the U.K. in March). “It’s deeply damaging and dangerous to make unfounded comparisons between pedophilia and homosexuality. Lesbian, gay and bisexual people still face daily discrimination. Those who falsely link loving, committed relationships between adults of the same sex and paedophilia only seek to further stigmatise gay people,” says Stonewall’s Richard Lane.

The lesson of Savile and the other investigations his case has inspired must be to listen to victims, not to make more victims by judging people on superficial grounds and creating room for bigots.

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