Mark Lawson: allegedly

4 May
Mark Lawson

Mark Lawson ©Calyx Picture Agency

Mark Lawson: it could all be made up and still be true.

The words above are not mine but are taken from the entry in the literature festival brochure in respect of Mark Lawson’s talk last night at Swindon Arts Centre. When I saw them there on the page two words popped into my head: ‘fake news’. I wasn’t the only one to have that train of thought clearly because in the question session someone raised that very thing.

One has to wonder if, in the new order from across the pond of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’, the phrase ‘trumped-up charges’ doesn’t take on a whole new meaning?

So, The Allegations. A semi-autobiographical contemporary novel, set in a fictitious Midlands university, that explores the scenario of having ‘historic’* allegations made against you, and how you get through it and what it does to you.

And if the description ‘semi-autobiographical’ is too strong the novel is most certainly influenced by Lawson’s own experience. He recently stepped down from his long-running hosting role of BBC Radio 4’s culture show, Front Row, amid claims of bullying.

Prior to Operation Yewtree and the revelations of both Jimmy Saville’s abuse and the extent to which it was ignored/covered up, it wasn’t the easiest thing to complain about bullying/sexual harassment in large organisations. Evidently.

Out of that investigation has grown a culture in which you can be accused of a ‘thing’ and be told neither what that ‘thing’ is, nor who your accuser is and have therefore, no means to defend yourself. How can you counter what you don’t know? As Lawson points out, and uses in the novel, it’s Kafkaesque and then some.

Lawson observed that there’s nothing in his book that suggests the allegations made against his protagonists are false. But there’s been some high-profile cases in real-life where the allegations have been exactly that.

Sir Cliff Richard was recently put through this particular mill. In the end all nine charges were dropped because not a shred of physical evidence was found. Sir Cliff himself commented to the police that there was no evidence. To which the police replied ‘the accusation is evidence’. Really?

‘If someone ‘feels’ something then it happened – no matter what’

Lawson spoke of the slippage of language around these things. Language that has moved from ‘alleged victim’ of abuse to ‘victim’ to ‘survivor’ all without supporting proof.

It’s evident that in a culture of anonymous allegations that you can neither refute nor defend yourself from, the risk of injustice is high. Worse still there is no exoneration in any real sense. The law may clear you but the digital world will not.

Back in the day when print ruled the world you were, as the saying went, soon yesterday’s chip wrapper. Now though, once something is on the world wide web it stays on the world wide web. Unless someone physically removes it. (And that aside, chips no longer come wrapped in newspaper. The health and safety brigade I suppose?)

So the prosecutory pendulum swung from it being nigh on impossible to raise a complaint against someone in power or authority to: ‘On almost every noticeboard were posters showing bright red telephones and a number to phone to report a colleague for an offence of some kind’ (taken from The Allegations – a description of a university hallway).

But now? Lawson feels that, after this wild pendulum swinging, the extreme rules of ‘Yew Tree’ are being abandoned for a more moderate approach. Because there ARE two sides to every story and because people have to be allowed to defend themselves.

After all, in the words of one of Lawson’s protagonists:

“I hope you never become a divorce lawyer or a car insurance company,” Tom replies, “as, in either case, it seems unworkable to have a system in which, if someone thinks it’s your fault, then it is.”

* The quote marks around ‘historic’ are significant. Lawson explained that he frames the word that way to underline the point that references to past transgressions should be ‘historical’. Historic means something entirely different of course.

Mark Lawson appeared at Swindon Arts Centre at Swindon Festival of Literature, 3 May 2017, with his book, The Allegations.

Chronicle written by Angela Atkinson of Born Again Swindonian and AA Editorial Services

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