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Celebrity Sex Trials – the Problem with Memory

February 19, 2014

I’d love to remember what it was like being born. Unfortunately I can’t, and I’m not about to put myself in the hands of some regression therapist to find out. So I have to content myself with one utterly inconsequential memory from my first six years of life. It was of my father having to produce petrol coupons to fill the family car during the Suez crisis. Since petrol rationing was effective between December 1956 and April 1957, I can reasonably assume that the memory dates from that period.

Was this a genuine memory or a confabulation? After all, I’ve always been fanatical about history. Perhaps I read something that subsequently found its way into my personal narrative. I can’t prove it happened, but I can argue that it’s highly likely that I was in the car on at least one occasion during those four months. So here’s a problem: I believe it happened, but I don’t know it did. If there’d been a photo of me as a grinning five-year handing the coupons to an avuncular pump attendant, then I would pretty much know it happened. But I have no such evidence.

A few days ago, a friend reminded me of a couple of things that happened in the Seventies of which I have no memory whatsoever. One of them involved the two of us being stopped by the police late one night in Nottingham, and my prevailing upon them to give us a lift to where we were staying. Another involved my obtaining tickets to watch my football team, Aston Villa, playing his team, Notts Country. Trivial stuff, but entirely consistent with what I do remember of my life at the time.

My faulty powers of recall made me think about what else might have happened of which I have no memory. Are there unknown skeletons in the cupboard? Are there other people who might suddenly pop up to say I did some dark deed? I very much hope not, because I always erred on the side of caution both then and subsequently. I sleep well at night.

But I wonder what went through the minds of the two British celebrities, the Coronation Street actor William Roache and Dave Lee Travis, the disc jockey, who over the past couple of weeks have been acquitted of various sexual offences, some of which were alleged to have taken place in the Sixties and Seventies. Their defence will have been based on their knowledge that the offences never took place. And their credible portrayal of that knowledge will have led to a belief by the jury that they were not guilty.

In the absence of documentary evidence, DNA tests or eye-witness accounts, it will have been extremely hard for any jury to convict Roache and Travis “beyond reasonable doubt” for acts alleged to have taken place, in some cases, thirty or forty years ago.

But given the unreliability of memory, can a defendant say definitively that they knew something did or didn’t happen without corroborating evidence? And did those guys at any stage wonder whether there were things that happened all those years ago of which they now had no recollection?

If we accept that in the absence of definitive evidence, there’s no such thing as knowledge, only belief (which is sometimes qualified as “to the best of my knowledge”), then another problem springs from the origin of the belief.

If I was by temperament inclined towards a negative view of myself, would I believe memories suggesting that I had a happy childhood unless I could point to an event that created my subsequent unhappiness? Or would I be more inclined to buy into memories that supported and explained my current misery? In other words, would I let the happy memories atrophy- or slip into inaccessible areas of my brain – but keep the bad memories at the forefront by calling upon them regularly to support my personal “life narrative”? Would the same logic also lead me to believe in memories that are demonstrably false?

I ask these questions rather than make statements because I’m neither a psychologist, nor in any other way qualified to answer them except through my own experience of life and my observation of others. I’ve read a few books that touch on memory, including most recently Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science, in which the author explores the nature of memory and belief. But that doesn’t make me an expert.

I do, however, know quite a bit about the Seventies, because I lived through them, even if a few details might have slipped my mind. And for much of that decade I was involved in the music business, as were Jimmy Savile, Dave Lee Travis and others caught up in the current rash of prosecutions.

And I don’t buy the argument that in those days “standards” were different to those that apply today – at least in respect of rape and under-age sex.

Most of my contemporaries were familiar with the term “jailbait” – as applied to girls too young under the law to have consensual sex. We knew about Jerry Lee Lewis’s marriage to a 13-year-old, about the Roman Polanski statutory rape case. We knew we could go to jail. That said, was having sex with under-age girls a common occurrence among rock stars and others involved at the sharp end of the music business? I’d say it was, whether or not they transgressed through ignorance of their sexual partner’s age. And you can be sure that perpetrators will have been fully aware of the consequences of being caught, even if in their glittering cocoons they felt fireproof, or if they were so saturated with drugs or alcohol that they didn’t care either way.

Rape was as much a no-no in those days as it is today. But you can also be sure that many unpunished rapes took place within the borders of show business. As for groping, however you define the term, that was common enough too. But one man’s grope is another man’s hug, as was argued in the Travis trial. Still, I honestly believe that forced non-penetrative sexual contact was as unacceptable in the Seventies as it is today. People are still getting away with it today, as they did then.

All in all, I don’t see “different standards” as a reason for believing that the prosecutors made a mistake in focusing on high profile individuals in the wake of the Jimmy Savile investigations.

Some things have changed, though. Today we have a compensation culture that didn’t exist in 1970. Yes, you could sell your story to the News of the World and make a few bucks that way. But I don’t recall many examples in the UK of victims of sex crimes embarking on civil actions against the perpetrators. In those days we didn’t have “no win, no fee” lawyers. Today we live in a much more litigious society. Logic suggests that some  people will be tempted to come forward in the hope of financial gain, even to the extent of making spurious allegations

And what about the practice of using multiple allegations to bolster the prosecution case? Now things get murkier. Is crowd-sourcing hostile witnesses a fair process if there’s a chance that someone facing a single allegation is less likely to be convicted than someone facing multiple allegations. The likelihood of “believability” would seem to be loaded against the person who has people lining up to accuse him, especially if that person is a high-profile celebrity who has encountered thousands of young people over a long career. To me, that doesn’t feel like blind justice.

In the case of Messrs Roache and Travis, it’s not for me to question the sincerity of those who gave evidence against the defendants, nor would I question that the verdicts were the right ones. But because human memory has been proven again and again to be fallible, particularly relating to events that took place many decades in the past, isn’t it worth asking whether there should be variable criteria for determining whether or not a prosecution should go ahead? Should a case be allowed to depend on “his word against mine”, with no other evidence presented beyond the credibility of the witness, if the event in question took place forty years ago?

Just as I’m not a psychologist, neither am I a lawyer, but I can’t believe that it would be impossible for legislators come up with stricter rules of evidence based on the age of the alleged crime. Not a statute of limitation, but a recognition that over time memory deteriorates, and for a successful prosecution it must be backed up by other evidence. The problem with sexual offences is that they rarely take place in front of witnesses unless they involve gang rape or consensual group sex. So in the absence of positive DNA tests, verdicts come down to personal testimony backed up by circumstantial evidence, weak or otherwise.

Several other high-profile cases will soon be coming to trial. Will the two recent acquittals increase the chances of others being found not guilty of the offences of which they have been charged? No doubt the judges will direct the juries to concentrate on the cases in hand and not to let other trials influence them, but I think it’s inevitable that the Roache and Travis verdicts will have some effect on juries in upcoming trials.

Which leads to another question. Stuart Hall, a TV presenter, pleaded guilty of multiple sexual offences, some of which dated from the Sixties and Seventies. He did so after the Savile revelations went public, but before the Roache and Travis acquittals. Would he have stuck to his original rebuttal of the charges, in which he claimed that they were “pernicious, callous, cruel and, above all, spurious” if his case had come to trial now? Clearly only he can answer that.

One final factor worth considering in the wake of the celebrity trials is this. In the Seventies we had no DNA testing, camera phones, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, email, Instagram and CCTV – technology and media likely to increase the chances of building a case of sexual misconduct against an individual. Given the vast number of electronic and physical traces we leave without even thinking about it, perhaps within the next decade we will see an end to prosecutions based purely on the credibility of witnesses, as opposed to strong circumstantial and factual evidence.

Should that be the case, there may well be a number of geriatric rock stars breathing sighs of relief, but also hopefully a lot fewer damaged people angry that they had to wait so long for their accusations to be taken seriously.

From → Social, UK

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