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When confronted with irrefutable evidence that one of the most famous MPs in his party's history had abused dozens of boys, how would you expect a leader to respond? Nick Clegg said in September that he was "shocked and horrified" by the case Channel 4's Dispatches had gathered against Sir Cyril Smith. Its journalists showed that the 29-stone Liberal member for Rochdale had raped and abused from the 1960s to the 1980s, while hiding behind the persona of a comedy northerner. Clegg's outraged tone was an advance on the eulogy he gave when his grotesque colleague did the world a favour by dropping dead in 2010. "Everyone in Rochdale truly adored him," Clegg said then. "This really was a larger than life figure and he will be sorely, sorely missed."

Alas, the sadder and wiser Clegg spoiled his retraction by adding that he wanted the police to carry out a thorough investigation into Smith. He should have known that the police had carried out an investigation years ago. He should have known that in 1979 a few good journalists on the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye had exposed how the authorities had done nothing about the detectives' reports that Smith had administered punishment beatings on children in Rochdale's Cambridge House Children's Home. 

Clegg may even have heard how their exposé did no good, and left the journalists with a feeling every decent reporter experiences at least once in a lifetime. You have done all the work, and uncovered a sensational story. The lawyers approve it. Your paper prints it. No writ arrives. You wait for the phone to ring but it never does. There are no questions in parliament, or agonised debates by the talking heads on the radio. Rival newspapers respond to your scoop by ignoring it. "Where is everyone?" you want to cry. "Where's the follow-up?"  

There is none. In Smith's case a grateful establishment followed up by giving him an MBE "for services for youth" in 1966, and a knighthood in 1988.

Of all the sex abuse scandals now coming out of the BBC, Liberal Democrats, Socialist Workers Party and Catholic Church, the Smith affair is the most revealing because it was a secret in plain view. Anyone who wanted to know knew. But everyone wanted to forget. Liz MacKean, who walked out of Newsnight after its disgrace of an editor refused to run her exposé of Jimmy Savile, fronted the Channel 4 investigation — The Paedophile MP: How Cyril Smith Got Away With It. She found many similarities with her censored scoop. Smith, like Savile, seemed an altruist devoted to helping children in need. Smith, like Savile, was the type of celebrity the British elevate to the status of "national treasure" —people who are so cheerful and familiar that the very sight of them brings a smile to your face. For Smith was more than a politician. He was the roly-poly barrel of fun who appeared on every chat and game show; appeared indeed, alongside Savile. (They must have had so much to talk about in the green room.) National treasures are difficult for the police, their victims or journalists to take on. Not the smallest of reasons to be wary of the celebrity-driven campaign to impose political surveillance on the press is that the Leveson "reforms" will make it harder still to investigate the famous. 

A generation ago, the police and press could do their job. The Rochdale boys' home was little better than a brothel and torture chamber in the 1960s. Rapists from as far as Sheffield would cross the Pennines to abuse the boys. Smith had a master key that let him into every room, and men now in middle age told MacKean in horrible detail what he did to them when they were children. Despite Rochdale having a small and tight elite, the police established that Smith administered fake medicals and corporal punishment — putting boys over his knee and beating their naked backsides. He smashed children's teeth out and forced them to have sex. The county constabulary was as keen to investigate as the town's detectives. It took over the inquiry to make sure that local dignitaries could not intervene.

Smith was so certain that the police would expose him, that he was weeping and popping Valium. Help came when he appealed to Jack McCann, Rochdale's Labour MP in the mid-1960s. Appalled that detectives were investigating a fellow politician, McCann went to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The law officer was equally appalled and killed the case. His "good name" cleared, Smith carried abusing into the 1980s, and widened his net to include young Liberal activists. After he showed his debt to McCann by ousting him in a dirty campaign, he had an MP's immunity. Channel 4 showed how Special Branch and MI5 protected him. When furious police officers went to the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye, David Steel, the then Liberal leader, shrugged off their revelations.

The temptation here is to say there is something creepy about the Liberal Party. It professes to be feminist, but has no women MPs in prominent positions. The sex scandals that hit it with such regularity suggest its "liberalism" is of the porny, readers' wives, suburban swingers' variety, where any restrictions on sexual conduct, including limits on the age of consent, are oppressive impositions by the "squares".

Tempting though it is to damn the Lib Dems as the perverts' party, it is as much a mistake as damning Roman Catholicism as the paedophiles' faith. Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorship recently wrote about the dangers of missing the importance of hierarchical control in sexual abuse. Reidy is an atheist, but he is also an Irish atheist living in London, whose nose can pick up the whiff of British anti-Catholicism. Power, not faith, led to abuse, he wrote, and he was surely right. Whether they are celebrities at the BBC or priests in the Catholic Church, if you allow vicious men to become untouchable, you run the risk that they will touch up any woman or child they desire. If, as with Savile or Smith, you treat abusers as "national treasures", you run the additional risk that detectives or reporters will back away for fear of provoking the nation's wrath.

We say we have learned the lessons of the 1970s. But as I write politicians, at the instigation of celebrities, are paying a gruesome tribute to Cyril Smith, the ultimate celebrity politician. They are proposing a state-approved system of press regulation that will punish reporters who have committed no crime. Far from moving on, we are moving backwards.

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January 17th, 2014
3:01 AM
Curiously, there is no adequate acknowledgement - in either the article itself or the comments section - of the pernicious impact created by England's lunatic libel laws. These laws protected Smith (in addition to Savile) over decades; and as long as they exist they will continue to protect perverts without number, not least through such reprehensible institutions as "libel tourism". In America it would have been extremely difficult, and probably impossible, for either Smith or Savile to get away with what they did.

November 11th, 2013
11:11 PM
The contributor named "somewhat less grimm" ("somewhat muddled" might be more appropriate) should understand that it is possible to broaden a discussion beyond the limits of a strict sentence by sentence reading of the article. Somewhat less grimm would do well to consider the heroic stance often adopted by crusading journalists before dismissing my comments as "blinkered". John Pilger would be one example. Another would be Martin Bell, a man so determined to stand against corruption in British politics that he entered parliament clad in the white garments of the pure.

November 10th, 2013
8:11 PM
How many times do I have to make this simple point? Some journalists have been using the Saville case and now the Cyril Smith case to frighten us into the belief that if Leveson manages to curtail press freedom then celebrity child abusers will be able to operate with impunity. Yet, EVEN WITH A FREE PRESS these two celebrities got away with it for decades. Surely that must raise questions about how the powerful and influential national press uses its freedom.

November 5th, 2013
1:11 PM
What does Jeremy Thorpe have to say about all this? Apparently he's had the temerity to not be dead yet (if wikipedia is to be believed)

somewhat less grimm
November 5th, 2013
7:11 AM
‘abrook’ and ‘grimm’ think like the same blinkered person; reading in to an article ideas that are not present and damning omissions that are illusory. It is ‘dimwitted’ to interpret an article without reading it or worse reading, but not understanding. It is important that in the future celebrity abusers are more, not less likely to be exposed. At no point in his article does Cohen even allude to the suggestion that journalism is a profession ‘of heroic speakers and seekers of truth with only a minority of gutter, tabloid mavericks sullying the good name of the free press.’ In fact Cohen implies quite the opposite, ‘in 1979 a few good journalists on the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye had exposed how the authorities had done nothing about the detectives' reports that Smith had administered punishment beatings on children in Rochdale's Cambridge House Children's Home. ……their exposé did no good, and left the journalists with a feeling every decent reporter experiences at least once in a lifetime. ….Rival newspapers respond to your scoop by ignoring it. "Where is everyone?" you want to cry. "Where's the follow-up?".....'

Stephen Hildon
November 4th, 2013
9:11 PM
Cyril Smith didn't "oust" Jack McCann as Rochdale MP. McCann died in 1972 and Smith won the by-election.

November 4th, 2013
7:11 PM
Thank you for the advice The Author, but I did read the piece before commenting. I also watched the Channel 4 Dispatches programme. Perhaps I my comment was not quite precise enough. So, with a little more precision let me say that not withstanding the exceptional efforts of the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye at its investigative best why did our very powerful national press not use its freedom to take the Saville and Smith stories to a wider public and thus bring about the downfall of these child abusers? Instead, the exposes were ignored and our free press, with its fixation on the saleability of celebrity, carried on contributing to the development of these two characters into grotesque "national treasures". Our national press had the freedom and power but failed to use them. There have been so many pieces written about the threat to press freedom presented by Leveson yet next to nothing on the failure to expose Saville. That failure must tell us something about how our national press operates and how those who work in the industry choose their targets. Meanwhile, the journalists versus politicians battle rumbles on as though political comment was all that the press is about.

Barry Larking
November 4th, 2013
6:11 PM
Visiting a former college friend in Rochdale in the early 70s I was bemused to learn that Smith was according to a Rochdale Free Press contact of my friend, a drug user. I could not believe it to be true. Ten years later I heard about Savile. I am one of the least curious or prurient of men, but if I heard these stories then who else knew? It seems our press could or would not speak out. Has anything changed?

November 4th, 2013
2:11 PM
Well said! ..."he glosses over the fact that his vaunted free press failed for decades to expose either of these two "national treasures" and in fact colluded in the cult of celebrity which helped to protect them...

The Author
November 4th, 2013
1:11 PM
But as I say, the Rochdale Alternative Press and Private Eye did expose him. If I may give you some advice, it is always best to read a piece before commenting

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