At the height of the furore surrounding Gerry Adams's arrest in relation to Jean McConville's murder, I was asked on Today — BBC radio's morning news programme — if it mightn't be better to forget about such old crimes. I said that if it was right to arrest old men for allegedly feeling up teenagers 40 years ago it would surely be wrong to ignore a 1972 murder just because it happened in Belfast.
The reaction I had from members of the English public was a resounding yes. At a time of deep unease about apparent double standards in the operation of the criminal justice system, Joe Public at least is clear where he stands when it comes to prosecuting old murders. About old gropes he's more conflicted, feeling anger that Jimmy Saville got away with a life-time of squalid sexual exploitation of the vulnerable, yet worried that some innocent old men are having their lives ruined by overzealous police and prosecutors trying to compensate for past failures.
Jimmy Saville, so admired for his prodigious charity work that he became both a British and a Papal Knight, had been open about his sexual adventurism in his 1974 autobiography. There was, for instance, the story of the arrival at the nightclub he ran of "a high-ranking lady police officer [who] showed me the picture of an attractive girl who had run away from a remand home. 'Ah,' says I, all serious, 'if she comes in I'll bring her back tomorrow but I'll keep her all night first as my reward.' " Being new to the area, the officer apparently returned to the station and asked: "Is he serious?" The child (who was under 16) turned up. went home with Saville, and was taken to the police in the morning.
"The officeress was dissuaded from bringing charges against me by her colleagues, for it was well known that, were I to go, I would probably take half the station with me."
As the horrifying facts began to come out after Saville's 2011 death at the age of 84 — trying desperately to compensate for their previous negligence and cowardice — the police set up Operation Yewtree, began investigating Saville's crimes, interviewing mostly naff celebrities and encouraging historic sexual allegations. Tabloids had photographs of old, often ailing men being arrested.
After 19 months, here's the tally. Two nasty old men, celebrity PR-man Max Clifford, 71, and TV presenter Stuart Hall, 84, are rightly in jail. Rocker Gary Glitter, 70, who has served time before, has been on bail since October 2012; ex-broadcaster Chris Deering, 73, who for 40 years has been in and out of jail for sex offences, awaits trial on 41 more charges. Thirteen months after being arrested, Scouse treasure Jimmy Tarbuck, 74, was told there was insufficient evidence to prosecute, as were two ex-BBC producers and comedian Freddie Starr, 71, who came to fame because Max Clifford invented a story that he'd eaten a hamster, and who was arrested four times in 15 months.
Dave Lee Travis, 70, DJ, was found not guilty on 10 out of 12 counts but is being retried on the two and tried on two more. Broadcaster Paul Gambaccini, 65, and a doctor from Stoke Mandeville Hospital (scene of some of Saville's most revolting assaults) are both on bail (uncharged) and David Smith, Saville's chauffeur, committed suicide.
For the past few weeks, much-loved, much-decorated and much laughed-at-and-with musician, singer, songwriter, painter and all-round TV personality Australian Rolf Harris, 84, has been fighting 12 charges of indecent assault of minors, th most important of which goes back more than 30 years and involves a then friend of his daughter's. The jury will decide next week.
What Joe Public thinks is that with money for police and courts limited, this is a pretty meagre result for the expenditure of millions, that more consistency and common sense from police and prosecutors would be welcome, that officialdom having in the past ignored complaints now believes them too readily, that only the most serious of such cases should be pursued, that it's tough on the innocent that their identities are revealed and they have to spend their savings on lawyers and that fashionable household musical names at whom teenagers notoriously threw themselves seem not to have been investigated. Some also wonder about what is the right age of consent: in the EU alone, it's 13 in Spain, 14 in Italy, 15 in Sweden, 16 in the UK and 17 in Ireland.
About the pursuit of some crimes, though, there's no confusion. Joe Public knows where he is with murder. He doesn't care if it happened in Belfast or Brighton, Berlin or Barcelona, it's wrong, and whether it occurred today or 40 years ago, there can be no forgetting.