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Ted Heath a paedophile? Not until he's proven guilty

The former British prime minister has a right to his presumed innocence.

Aaron McKenna

First published – 8am

IT IS SICKENINGLY fascinating to watch a man’s reputation for his life work be taken apart with a week of media coverage. The line between accusation and fact is particularly thinly drawn when the person in question is deceased and no longer around to enjoy the protections of law. The public and media need to consider how willing they are to swallow salaciousness and dwell upon it before a single substantiated fact has been established.

The former British prime minister, Sir Ted Heath, was an odd fish. He was a bachelor all his life, which is code for “closet homosexual” to many. Whether or not he was has never been pinned down, and his biographers have dedicated a lot of print to pulp without drawing a firm conclusion.

Rumours

But the more private the life, the more fertile ground there is for rumour and innuendo to take root. And if, as the rumours go, Heath was secretly a homosexual, repressing his private life so that he could have a successful public one, then the old canards about the gay predilection for paedophilia soon follows.

We are very familiar with official inaction when it comes to dealing with child molesters. Here and in the UK, in the past and very much in the present in places like Rotherham, we have seen inaction lead to further abuse and criminals escaping justice. It is, therefore, right and proper that police in the UK should actively seek to redress the balance – particularly when such glaring failings as have emerged in the Jimmy Saville case come to light.

In trying to right one injustice, however, they are perpetrating others. Cliff Richard’s house was raided in relation to a 30-year-old claim against him, which should absolutely be investigated. Why the BBC was tipped off and had a helicopter hovering over the house while the raid, which Richard first heard of when he was watching TV from Portugal, was ongoing is another matter.

Ted Heath is dead and buried, but police decided to hold a press conference outside the gates of his former home when discussing historical allegations. One has to wonder if the police are more concerned about uncovering past wrongdoings, or their image in being seen to do so.

Media circus

There is a big difference between an investigation and a show. If a security guard grabs you in a shop and marches you past other customers to be searched for stolen goods, you may have a defamation case to bring against them if you did nothing wrong. If the police raid your house and invite the media along to film from a helicopter, there is a clear impression being created before any finding of fact has been made.

Britain Former Leader Heath sitting in the garden of his home in Salisbury, Wiltshire, in 1989 Source: Associated Press

The media is keen to create sensation and drip feed out salacious sounding, but totally unsubstantiated, claims. The public read and digest this whole, creating a feedback loop of ever intensifying speculation. A week ago, we were hearing about claims made against Heath by a former convicted brothel owner. It was on the front pages.

The fact that she, through her lawyers, and the prosecuting lawyer both came out subsequently and said that no allegations were made against Heath in relation to child molestation gets less attention. There’s no front pages screaming, “Maybe not”. That, or folks turn to the old, “Oh yeah, well they’re all just paid up members of The Establishment, it’s all a cover up.”

We hear rumours and innuendo passed around about other figures whose lives will probably come under scrutiny. It’ll sell a few papers as each luminary comes under the spotlight during the police comb through of old files. Some of them will undoubtedly turn out to have substantiated claims made against them.

Few protections

After Saville it’s very difficult to believe otherwise, and we know that estimates on the prevalence of paedophilia range from 0.5% to 5% of the male population. Among a large group of people, there’s bound to be a few, and if they were protected by silence then their sick activities will flourish as in the church.

Police in the UK, and we could use with similar investigations here I’d wager, need to chase down old leads. Injustices must be righted, and the living in particular should be brought to justice no matter their age or standing.

At the same time, we need to grow up a bit and bear in mind that to date there have been several exonerations alongside high-profile convictions for molestation. The living get the value of a day in court and libel laws to protect themselves, but some people will never get past the smoke/fire thing and their reputations will be forever tarnished. The dead have very few protections, and mud once slung does stick easier.

Reputational damage

These investigations for a large part deal with cover ups as much as crimes themselves. So it would be wrong to conduct the inquiries in secret. In public, they can also serve to attract more victims to come forward as we saw in Saville. We need to deal with the claims made in a sensitive manner, however, for both victims of crimes and potential victims of reputational damage.

Ted Heath might turn out to be a molester who deserves our disapprobation and the re-writing of his record. But nothing to say so has been established in fact, though in perception his picture alongside salacious stories has done a lot to tarnish the reputation of a man who may well be totally innocent. He might just be a victim of gossip, or a victim indeed of the society that would not accept a gay man as Prime Minister and led to the secrecy that is so fertile for salaciousness today.

His name and others will come up as police in the UK continue their inquiries. Here in Ireland the thought that it would be impossible for child molesters to carry on about their business, outside the clergy of course, is obviously worth re-considering in the light of what’s going on next door. But as these investigations continue, we must all – media, public and police PR agents – grow up a little and truly respect that people are innocent until proven guilty.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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