Scratch beneath the surface in any case of child abuse and you are likely to find an inequality of power between the perpetrator and the victim. That was the situation in many of the scandals that have rocked care homes, schools and churches. And, it seems, that was also the case with Cyril Smith.
In this compelling book, the authors chronicle Smith’s life, expose his wrongdoing and relay a sorry story of a cover-up. Isolated by being born poor, out of wedlock and deeply conscious of his physical appearance, Smith set his sights on power. And for him that meant developing what the authors call a ‘visceral and emotional connection’ with the people. Marching from house to house he inveigled himself into almost every household and every life in Rochdale. So much so that he became untouchable – or virtually so.
The reader is 44 pages into the book before the words ‘He was abusing boys’ appear. Details are then given, thus exposing the double life of Cyril Smith. However, the book is about much more than his double life. He was not untouchable. He was investigated in the late 1960s for child abuse and a file was sent to the director of public prosecutions. But, the authors argue, no proceedings were brought because improper pressure was put on the police and the DPP summarily dismissed the case. In a letter to the police in 1970, Norman Skelhorn, the then DPP, said he did not consider there to be a reasonable prospect of a conviction. I have seen and studied that letter myself. The reason given for the non-prosecution of Smith was that, ‘The characters of some of these young men would be likely to render their evidence suspect.’ As the authors rightly point out, the injustice in these words is as strong now as it was then. Wind forward 50 years and you have the victims of grooming gangs in the same market town: Rochdale. The authors make this link and it is an important one, but they surely overreach when they openly ‘wonder if years of child abuse being covered up in Rochdale had normalised this crime’.
The book also deals with institutional cover-up. The authors make a powerful case that many people must have known of Smith’s double life over nearly half a century. Yet nothing was done. Shades of Jimmy Savile, with whom Smith was friendly? At every turn of the page, the case for some sort of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse becomes stronger.
As the authors make clear, the story of Smith provides big lessons for all of us. This important book should be read by all those charged with delivering criminal justice, by all those interested in politics, but most importantly by those in every community motivated by a healthy and unstinting scepticism of authority. As the authors observe at the very end of the book, blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
Keir Starmer QC is a former director of public prosecutions and is a policy adviser to the Labour party on victims’ rights
Smile for the Camera: The Double Life of Cyril Smith
Simon Danczuk MP and Matthew Baker
BiteBack Publishing | 320pp | £18.99
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