Thursday 1 May 2014

How Cyril Smith got away with it

In the 1970s I was involved with a Manchester based alternative magazine called Mole Express. Although I no longer wrote for them by 1979, in late April of that year I wandered into the Mole's offices to kill an afternoon with Mike Don the rag's owner-editor. I found him alone in the office chortling over the latest copy of the Rochdale Alternative Press (RAP) which had just arrived in that day's post. All the alternative magazines would send free copies out to one another, before they were distributed to the public, so it is highly likely that Mike and I were the first people to see the May '79 edition of RAP and its two page spread entitled "The strange case of Smith the man."

The story of Smith and his spanking proclivities were set out for all to see, and I can remember Mike's awe-struck words that this story meant either the demise of Smith's career or the bankruptcy of RAP when Smith sued the paper into the ground.

Actually neither happened and in the May 1979 general election, just a week or so after the story broke, Cyril Smith increased his majority in Rochdale, The next edition of RAP contained a bemused editorial which pointed out that only Private Eye had carried even a summary of the RAP exclusive, with the rest of Fleet Street ignoring it. 

I think that two things came together to kill the story stone dead. The first is that reading the account again - and you can read both the May and June stories reproduced at this link - it is obvious that RAP only concentrated on the accounts of the spankings, rather than playing up the homosexual abuse angle. One can understand why they did that because they had hard evidence of the former that would stand up in court, but the sexual abuse side was speculation and they would probably have lost a libel case had they alleged that he was getting his rocks off with teenage youths.

The second factor which killed the story was that the people of Rochdale were so indifferent to it that they sent Smith back to Westminster with an increased majority. People just believed that Big Cyril was doing the right thing by teaching young tearaways a lesson. Parents would actually call Smith in to take their sons in hand when they were out of control!

Had RAP presented evidence that this was sexual abuse then the matter would have been different and Smith's career would have been over, but they didn't, so the story ended up as being one about Cyril Smith giving yobs a damned good hiding - and Rochdale approved of that wholeheartedly, as did the rest of Britain which is why the press ignored it.

I suppose the moral of this tale is that the past is a foreign country and they do things differently there.

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