One of the stranger moments of yesterday’s drama in the House of Commons, following the release of the Sue Gray ‘update’, was Boris Johnson’s decision to summon the ghost of Jimmy Savile to defend himself against the partygate allegations.
After being lectured by the Labour leader about his alleged lockdown dos, the PM hit back by suggesting that Keir Starmer as a former director of public prosecutions (DPP) had spent the majority of his time ‘prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out.’
Boris may have had a point about Keir Starmer locking up journalists (he was DPP when dozens were first arrested as part of operation Elveden). Needless to say though, the invocation of a notorious paedophile to avoid answering questions about a political scandal went down like a cup of cold sick among Tory MPs, with one saying the remark was ‘totally outrageous’.
Others have gone further, and suggested that Boris was guilty of spreading a ‘far-right’ smear about Keir Starmer, referencing claims online that Starmer had decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Savile. Starmer himself told Sky News this morning that the remarks were a ‘ridiculous slur peddled by right-wing trolls.’
But putting aside the obvious crassness of bringing up Savile, is it true that the allegations are a complete smear?
Media reports that mention the Savile row appear to be based on two ‘fact checks’ carried out by Reuters and Full Fact, in 2021 and 2020.
Both note that, yes, Keir Starmer was director of public prosecutions when several allegations about Savile were referred to the CPS by Surrey and Sussex police and, yes, the CPS declined to charge Savile at the time because they believed there was insufficient evidence.
But the fact checkers point out that Starmer was not the reviewing lawyer on the case and:
‘The CPS told Reuters in an email that there is no reference to any involvement from the DPP in the decision-making within a report (here) examining the case.’
Full Fact added that:
‘A later investigation criticised the actions of both the CPS and the police in their handling of the situation. It did not suggest that Mr Starmer was personally involved in the decisions made.’
Both are correct to say that the report, by Alison Levitt QC, Starmer’s principal legal advisor, did not suggest that Starmer was involved in the charging decision. But Mr S wonders if that isn’t exactly a helpful observation. As Levitt complained in her report, which was published in 2013, four years after the charging decision, all CPS records of the case had been deleted from the system and were impossible to retrieve:
‘The CPS appears to have no record at all of this case, because the original file was returned to the police following the decision that no prosecution would take place. There is nothing on CMS; the only reference says that the file was “destroyed” on 26th October 2010. I am told that what this means is that because the decision had been reached that no further action should be taken, for data protection reasons and in accordance with our normal policy, the CMS record was automatically deleted. It is not now possible to retrieve it.’
She was therefore forced to rely on police records during her investigation, to piece together the information the CPS would have received about the case. It’s not clear whether the police records would include any internal CPS deliberations or whether or not the case was referred to the DPP before the charging decision was made, because of the high-profile nature of the case.
Levitt did find though that the CPS had failed in its decision not to charge Savile, noting that the reviewing lawyer had failed to properly build a case with the police, failed to spot inconsistencies in their reports, and did not find out if witnesses could be encouraged to come forward. Several of the witnesses had chosen not to proceed with the case because they mistakenly believed they were the only ones coming forward. Levitt concluded that several of the allegations had a realistic prospect of conviction, based on what the police and CPS knew.
At the time at least Starmer appeared to take responsibility for these failings. As well as criticising the police forces involved, he also apologised for the CPS’s ‘shortcomings’ and announced that child sex abuse cases would be handled better in future. In other words, he apologised for the CPS’s failure to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as Boris Johnson indicated yesterday.
Keir Starmer has made much during the partygate and sleaze scandals of the fact that leaders are ultimately responsible for the failings of their organisations. As he told the House last year, ‘Leadership is about taking responsibility, and if there is an apology to be made, that apology should come from the top’. It seems though that when it comes to his own leadership, that responsibility is suddenly in short supply…
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