Matthew Norman: His life is destroyed. So why hound Gary Glitter?

Friday 22 August 2008 00:00 BST

Given that what preceded it may have been the greatest run in Olympic history, one can excuse the BBC commentators for failing to notice. Then again, maybe they did notice, but preferred to allow distaste to hold their tongues. Anyway, whatever explains this reticence, no one said a word about it when, a few minutes after Usain Bolt had broken a legendarily brilliant 200 metres world record on Wednesday, and while the Jamaican was languidly milking his lap of honour, there emerged from the "Bird's Nest" stadium speakers the twangy opening guitar chords of a song released long ago by a man released that day from prison in Vietnam.

All of his records being so startlingly similar, I can't be absolutely sure of this, but I think those chords belonged to "Hello! Hello! I'm Back Again", a 1973 number 2 hit for the artist still known, for all the absurdly incongruous jollity of the sobriquet, as Gary Glitter. One tends not to think of Chinese state employees as wilfully mischievous, but with Mr Glitter in transit at that moment towards the Chinese colony of Hong Kong, which later declined him entry, the timing did suggest a certain satirical wit.

"Did you miss me, yeah, while I was away?" runs the first verse, "Did you hang my picture on your wall? Did you kiss me, yeah, every single day, although you couldn't kiss me at all? And did you love me, yeah, like a good little girl..." We needn't labour the irony of that latter line, but to the subsequent question, "Did you miss me while I was away?," the answer seems mixed.

While many of us have been perfectly content to forget all about Mr Glitter, the editors of our red top tabloids palpably have missed him and the obvious circulation-boosting potential that travels hand in hand with persecuting a fallen celebrity. More than that, from the coverage of the last few days you could be forgiven for assuming that their conscious intent, if and when the presently stateless glam rocker is back again, is to drive him to suicide. Or if not suicide, then the next best thing, which is of course a fatal attack by the sort of News of the World readers who took to assaulting paedophiles "named and shamed", not to mention unnamed and unshamed paediatricians, by that paper several years ago.

Some of you may share the apparent belief of The Sun and The Daily Mirror that this is a noble ambition; that a man with convictions for downloading child pornography here and having sex with underage girls in the Far East has forfeited the right to life, as Margaret Thatcher once memorably declared of IRA terrorists.

The vast majority, I hope and pray, will cleave to the quaint old belief that, however repugnant the offence, once released from prison the offender is as entitled to live in peace in this country, without newspapers and radio phone-ins encouraging their audiences to garrote or ignite him. Unhappily, however, the vast majority of Independent readers constitutes an infinitesimal minority of the population, and here is another of those moments in national life when the woolly-minded, bleeding heart liberal feels utterly distended from what feels like mainstream opinion.

Whether Mr Glitter is a bad person or a victim of some form of mental illness, or a bit of both, is a more intriguing issue, albeit one better suited to moral philosophers and psychiatric specialists than hacks. Myself, for what incalculably little it's worth, I regard the appetite for pre-pubescent sexual partners more as grievous curse than wicked choice, although of course that's hardly any form of consolation to the victims.

That no one is under any obligation to sympathise with this wretched figure is as needless a statement of the bleedin' obvious as any ritualistic condemnation of crimes whose awfulness speak deafeningly for themselves. As it happens, I do have some sympathy for Mr Glitter, less because of any urge to take up the role left vacant by the demise of Lord Longford than for personal reasons.

As a small boy, to reiterate a story with which I've bored you before, my best friend's father was Mr Glitter's manager, and I knew him a little at the height of his fame. Overexcitement at an impending visit in 1973, just when "Hello! Hello! I'm Back Again" was high in the charts, enticed a pair of nine-year-olds to split a bottle of Harvey's Bristol Cream.

Long after we'd been exiled upstairs in disgrace, he appeared in the bedroom, sat at the other end of the bed, and pacified us with a kind of lullaby version of the song. He could not have been sweeter, nor the encounter more innocent, although of course neither of us drunken little boys was "a good little girl".

I knew his two children very slightly then too, and his estrangement from them, and a son born more recently in Cuba, must be at least as excruciating to him as the loss of every other comfort and pleasure he once knew. I can hardly imagine a more pitiable creature than Gary Glitter, more demented-looking than ever with that insane warlock's beard, shuttling from Vietnamese departure lounge to Hong Kong immigration control to Bangkok airport holding cell, desperate to avoid returning to a country in which, with the Home Secretary leaping aboard the red top bandwagon, he has good reason to fear for his life.

If Jacqui Smith rightly regards it as her duty to safeguard female children around the world by removing his passport, it is also her duty to protect him as she would any other British national. She might, for instance, care to balance her populist pronouncements about him being "despicable", which some of our dimmer compatriots will no doubt interpret as a licence, with a stern warning about the consequences of playing vigilante.

The justice systems of Britain and Vietnam have had their say, and Mr Glitter will continue to be punished by deprivations more agonising than that of his liberty. Irrevocably established as one of the age's leading grotesques, his life has been as destroyed as any could be short of death. One appreciates what a boon his release is for newspapers and phone-ins denied their sovereign right to torment Jade Goody by the diagnosis of cervical cancer, but even a New Labour home secretary should have the capacity to understand that released convicts retain the human rights to privacy – sex offenders register notwithstanding – and security.

If and when Gary Glitter's bizarrely Kafkaesque circuit of oriental airports concludes and he is back again, he is legally and morally entitled to precisely the same degree of protection as his potential victims here and elsewhere. What he must not be permitted to become is a human sacrifice for the benefit of our more cynically hysterical shock jocks and red top editors.

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