William Roache is not guilty. Neither is his prosecutor

Independent on Sunday, 9 February 2014

Reputation is a fragile commodity. If things had turned out differently, it’s a safe bet that Nazir Afzal would be reading admiring profiles of himself this weekend. Afzal is the chief crown prosecutor for north-west England and the man who decided to charge the actor, William Roache, with “historic” sex offences. Not so long ago, Afzal was being hailed for his tenacity in going after the British-Asian men who groomed under-age girls for sex in Rochdale; he also secured “guilty” verdicts against the parents of 17-year-old Shafilea Ahmed, who murdered their daughter nine years earlier. Now Afzal stands accused of leading a “celebrity witch-hunt” against elderly actors, DJs and television presenters.

Roache’s statement after his acquittal was dignified but his supporters were angry. They demanded to know why the case was ever brought, claiming that the actor was a victim of the “hysteria” created by revelations about Jimmy Savile. It’s a curious conclusion to draw from a “not guilty” verdict; there are courtrooms where the conviction rate is 100 per cent but they tend to be in totalitarian states. In serious criminal cases in England and Wales, the rate is around 82 per cent, and I would be seriously worried if every defendant were to be found guilty.

Talk of “witch-hunts” conceals an inconvenient fact: men charged with rape stand a better chance of walking free than other defendants. The conviction rate in rape trials – 63 per cent in 2102/13 – is quite a lot lower. Prosecutors are taking a bigger risk when they bring rape cases to court, especially when the alleged offences happened decades ago, leaving no forensic evidence. Afzal took the decision to charge the veteran broadcaster Stuart Hall, who still awaits trial on charges of rape and indecent assault. Other “historic” cases have yet to reach an outcome: the trial of the former Radio 1 DJ Dave Lee Travis on 13 counts of indecent assault and one of sexual assault is drawing to a close, while the entertainer Rolf Harris is due in court in April. He has pleaded “not guilty” to 12 counts of indecent assault.

Roache’s acquittal follows the “not guilty” verdict in the trial of another member of the Coronation Street cast, Michael Le Vell, who was charged with child abuse. Both outcomes have been greeted as though they represent egregious miscarriages of justice, when they might simply offer insights into the special difficulties attendant on trying famous defendants; on Friday, the judge in the Travis trial warned jurors not to be influenced by verdicts in the Roache case.

If the actor had been found guilty, the papers would be full of articles about his claim to have slept with 1,000 women and his sleazy nickname (“Cock Roache”). Instead, a principled prosecutor has been traduced for doing his job: the accusers in this case had a right to have their allegations tested in court, just as much as the young women who accused nine British-Asian men in Rochdale.

Death in the desert, disappearances at sea

The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014
Egypt and Sudan are rarely out of the news these days. Parker Bilal’s crime novels pre-date the current troubles, but offer revealing insights into the recent past; his detective, Makana, is a refugee, an honest policeman driven out of Sudan by political strife, and struggling to make a living in Cairo. The Ghost ­Runner (Bloomsbury £11.99/ebook £7.99) is the third in this fine series written under a pseudonym by the acclaimed novelist Jamal Mahjoub.
Makana has been hired to follow a husband whose wife suspects he is having an affair, only to discover that the man is visiting a young woman horrifically injured in a fire. Makana suspects an “honour” crime, and travels to the girl’s home town on the edge of the Sahara. Not for the first time, a literary novelist uses the crime genre to terrific effect, exposing official complicity in historic crimes against women.
Locked-room mysteries are a  staple of crime fiction. The Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir has come up with her own, and it’s a corker. The Silence of the Sea, translated by Victoria Cribb (Hodder £13.99/ebook £7.49), is about a family trip on a luxury yacht that turns into a nightmare. By the time it arrives from Lisbon, crashing into a jetty in Reykjavik, no one is on board.
Among the missing are the captain and a couple with their twin daughters. The children’s distraught grandparents ask a lawyer to investigate their disappearance, and, as she begins making inquiries, events on the yacht are revealed in a series of flashbacks. The novel is gripping and claustrophobic, and ends with one of the most dramatic twists in recent crime fiction.
Thomas Enger’s novels feature Henning Juul, an Oslo newspaper reporter badly scarred in a fire. The first two books in the series, Burned and Pierced, are inter­national bestsellers and the theme continues with Scarred, ­translated by Charlotte Barslund (Faber £7.99/ebook £6.99). Juul is pursuing a story about a sadistic murder in a nursing home when his estranged ­sister, a government minister, is accused of sexually harassing a young male aide. Enger’s portrayal of a ­successful woman targeted by a malicious accusation makes for a very modern plot. But the parallel murder investigation is ­contrived, making this a novel of two poorly connected halves.
Two series of infant deaths, more than a century apart, are the focus of Elly Griffiths’s The Outcast Dead (Quercus £16.99/ebook £10.99). Her forensic archeologist, Ruth Galloway, unearths the body of a woman hanged for murder in 1867. ­Jemima Green was a Victorian “baby farmer”, accused of killing infants in her care, and Ruth is taking part in a ­television documentary about her. At the same time, local police are investigating the deaths of three ­children, in a compassionate novel that raises questions about parental love and guilt.
Allan Massie’s novels set in Vichy France are always a joy. Cold Winter in Bordeaux (Quartet £12) takes place in 1942-43, as the war is turning against the Germans. Massie’s Superintendent Lannes is called to an apartment where he finds a teacher strangled with one of her own silk stockings. It looks like a murder committed at the height of ­passion, but Lannes isn’t convinced. He knows he is using the investigation as a diversion from fears about his sons, who are on opposite sides in the conflict, and the novel becomes a compelling portrait of a family experiencing the privations of war.

The Amanda Knox verdict isn’t justice for Meredith Kercher. It’s a witch-hunt

Independent on Sunday, 2 February 2014

We have seen the fevered imaginings of a rank species of misogyny

The brutal murder of a young woman in her own bedroom by a sexual predator is horrible to imagine. But the case of the British student Meredith Kercher, who was killed in Perugia more than six years ago, has been followed by one of the most protracted and tormenting legal processes in recent history.

Last week, an Italian court reinstated guilty verdicts on the victim’s American flatmate, Amanda Knox, and her former boyfriend Raffaele Sollecito, and yesterday the president of the Florence appeals court told an Italian newspaper the crime was the result of a series of coincidences. It might not have happened, said Alessandro Nencini, if Knox hadn’t changed her mind about going to work that evening. He admitted this would be the most “controversial” part of the judgment.

It’s worth recalling, at this point, that someone else was convicted of the murder five years ago. Copious amounts of forensic evidence implicated a young man called Rudy Guede, who left Italy after the attack and was arrested in Germany. He was convicted of sexual assault and murder in a fast-track procedure, and his sentence of 30 years was cut to 16 on appeal.

Most sex-attackers are men; Guede had Kercher’s blood on his hands and left other evidence behind; there is no incontrovertible evidence placing Knox or Sollecito in the bedroom; forensic evidence cited by the prosecution was discredited at their successful appeal in 2011. Yet the Italian authorities have stood by an idea formed in the immediate aftermath of the killing, which is that a woman must have been the prime mover. The case long ago become a circus, with some British papers gleefully hailing the return of “Foxy Knoxy” after Thursday’s verdict. At her original trial, this femme fatale supposedly had such power over two men who hadn’t previously met that she was able to persuade them to take part in a murder influenced by black magic.

These were the fevered imaginings of a rank species of misogyny. Their origins lie in the infamous history of Perugia, described as the “epicentre” of 15th-century witch trials. Both sides in the case made the link, with one hostile lawyer describing Knox as a “diabolical she-devil”. Five supposed “witches” were burned to death in Perugia between 1445 and 1501; their male “accomplices” were spared on the grounds that they had been bewitched.

Now the Florence court has replaced the black magic motive favoured in Perugia with a row between Kercher and Knox over a dirty toilet. First it was witchcraft, now it’s personal hygiene; if that seems a leap, the appeal judges haven’t deviated from the prosecutors’ original assumption in one crucial respect. They still seem to believe that a young American woman – not the man who left his DNA all over the scene – bears the greatest responsibility for a savage, sexually-motivated murder.

So what is your party’s line on bottom-pinching, Mr Clegg?

Independent on Sunday, 26 January 2014

Old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold, as the male-dominated Lib Dems are – painfully and publicly – finding out

Around 20 years ago, I went to see David Mamet’s play Oleanna at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was causing controversy, first because of the subject-matter – a false accusation of sexual harassment at an American university – and then because of the reaction at the London first night; when the academic beat up his female accuser on stage, some men in the audience cheered. The play was directed by Harold Pinter, who believed it was tough and unflinching. I thought it was a caricature and walked out.

In those days, a mostly male consensus still set the agenda in the arts, media and politics. Like most women, I had been groped at work and even, on one occasion, subjected to sexual assault. There wasn’t anyone to complain to and if you did, colleagues would rush to the man’s defence or suggest you’d mistaken his intentions. I never thought this situation would last once women started entering the workplace in large numbers. It hasn’t, as the Liberal Democrats are discovering in the most public way imaginable.

Whatever the outcome of the allegations against its former chief executive, Lord Rennard, the row which has split the party has a simple cause. Women are still not as widely represented as we should be in some walks of life, but old assumptions about what is acceptable behaviour no longer hold. Nick Clegg’s problem isn’t just the accusations against Rennard, who continues to deny them, or indeed the timing; last week the party also had to suspend one of its MPs, Mike Hancock, who faces civil litigation and much more serious accusations of sexual assault. It’s the impression that leading members of the party, who are almost without exception male, appear to be oblivious of a sea change in relations between men and women.

New rules apply, even in laddish environments such as Parliament, and many men as well as women welcome the change in the working atmosphere. Some even support the campaign to get rid of Page 3, which has become a litmus test of attitudes towards casual sexism. That isn’t to say that suggestive remarks or indeed sexual harassment have been abolished from the workplace, but it is much easier for both sexes to report behaviour that makes them uncomfortable.

Against this background, the failure of a party which has the word “liberal” in its title to embrace equality in its practices is little short of disastrous. The Lib Dems should have had procedures in place years ago to deal swiftly with allegations of sexual harassment. It’s tempting to think they might have done so if the party’s power structure wasn’t so resistant to women; there are only seven women among the party’s 57 MPs (56, now Hancock is suspended) and they haven’t said much about the current scandal.

Meanwhile, like dinosaurs who have not raised their heads for many a year, one Lib Dem bloke after another has lumbered blinking into the unfamiliar territory of gender politics. Clegg, who is a decent man, must have been tearing his hair out when he heard the sexist nonsense they came out with. Chris Davies, who is one of the party’s MEPs, protested that Rennard was accused only of touching women “through clothing” and dismissed the alleged incidents as no more than “an Italian man pinching a woman’s bottom” a few years ago. Davies said a lot of other foolish things as well, and eventually apologised. But he isn’t the only man in the party who has a strange take on groping bits of other people’s bodies. A Lib Dem peer, Lord Greaves, opined that “at least half of the members of the House of Lords have pinched a woman’s bottom”. Did he really mean to suggest that some noble ladies are unable to keep their hands off a shapely pair of female buttocks?

Greaves did at least admit that such behaviour is no longer widespread and said he was not trying to justify it. Rennard’s legal adviser, Lord Carlile, decided to play the victim card, saying that his friend’s treatment “has made the North Korean judicial system seem benign”. Frankly, I find it hard to believe that Kim Jong Un’s unfortunate uncle died with the words “No, anything but the Lib Dem disciplinary procedure!” on his lips.

What’s been fascinating to watch is the change in the way sexual harassment is being discussed. Two decades ago, there was a default assumption that women who complained were over-reacting or had made the whole thing up, but that’s far from the case now. Unlike the Lib Dems, Labour has plenty of high-profile women who are ready to talk knowledgeably on the subject, while newspapers have more women in commissioning roles. A headline in The Daily Telegraph, which recently started a “wonder women” blog, is symptomatic of the change: “You don’t need breasts to know [Rennard] is wrong.”

For every columnist who’s demanded to know why a woman doesn’t slap a man’s face if he touches her in a way she doesn’t like, someone else has asked why women should be expected to resort to violence. It’s a welcome shift away from questioning the accuser’s behaviour – traditional in cases of alleged rape as well as sexual harassment – towards asking instead why some men still try to take advantage of their status.

Of course this is about power, which is the only thing Mamet got right in Oleanna. In the past, many of us felt disbelief and anger when a colleague’s hand brushed our breasts, but there weren’t enough of us to do anything about it. That’s no longer the case and Nick Clegg needs to get his party’s line on bottom-pinching sorted, pronto.