Historical “cultures and practices” are under scrutiny as never before. The phone-hacking scandal spawned Lord Justice Leveson’s investigation into the culture, ethics and practices of the press. In a very separate sphere, Jimmy Savile’s monstrous criminality inspired one inquiry into a bygone era at the BBC and another into the disturbing relationship he developed with elements of the NHS.
Operation Yewtree, launched by the Metropolitan Police to examine Savile’s crimes, was subsequently extended to investigate the activities of several other, high-profile men. Max Clifford, and yesterday Rolf Harris, have both been convicted as a result. At times, the police inquiry and its findings have felt like a general inquiry into the culture of Britain in the 1970s.
When crimes emerge on this sort of scale, it is right that the authorities look not only at individual actions but also consider the wider context. But the notion of behaviour having been “cultural” is far from helpful. That is particularly true in relation to the offences for which Clifford and Harris have been found guilty, and which Stuart Hall admitted.
Focusing on “culture” can create the impression that at a certain time or in a certain place a type of behaviour was acceptable or, at the least, was not worthy of negative comment. That can never be true. Yet it can be a convenient concept for those individuals who are guilty of wrongdoing: they believed, they might say, that their actions were simply part of “the way things were”. In their own eyes their culpability is dimmed.
With the downfall of Rolf Harris, the public is once again required to reconsider much of what it believed about a once hugely popular figure from the entertainment world. The past, some would say, has been on trial. That is bound to be an unsettling process, but it is also a very necessary one.