A Fortnightly Review.
Operation Violet Oak: A story of false accusation
by Stephen Glascoe
By ANTHONY HOWELL.
IN THE SUMMER of 2016, a person whose name must remain unmentioned to this day, accused Dr Stephen Glascoe, a retired general practitioner, of being a member of a historical child abuse ring in Cardiff. Glascoe was always a lively character, in a creative circle of friends, definitely not a square – and even this served to discredit him. It is important here to note that as part of the victim compensation scheme, as it operated at the time, the accuser received twenty thousand pounds for her accusation, which was also levelled at four other men, each lurid indictment differing in certain particulars. When the case came before a judge in June 2017, the judge dismissed any request for the names of those accused not to be divulged. There is an inalienable right, he said, for the public to be made aware of the names and alleged offences of the accused.
Ultimately, after lengthy proceedings, costly research and an intense legal battle, in January 2018, all charges against these men were dropped, just two weeks before a final trial. For Glascoe, the accusations were particularly painful as one charge involved his son, who happened to have died of natural causes, with an inquest determining that the specific cause was unknown. However, due to the accusation levelled at Glascoe, the police got it into their heads that his son had committed suicide, conjecturing a background of abuse. Personally, I found the cruelty false accusation causes epitomised by this, and reading about it moved me to anger.
This sorry business began for the doctor when he was arrested and handcuffed at Bristol airport, when returning from a city break in July 2016. In Operation Violet Oak (the glamourous name the police gave to their investigation), Glascoe describes the harrowing experience, and how the matter developed, from one stage to the next. It is a stressful read, an account of one man’s very real suffering, given the uncertainty as to the outcome, the steep expenses incurred in hiring a legal team for defence (over a hundred thousand pounds, only fractionally remunerated), as well as the shredding of a personal and professional reputation and the psychological toll such malicious accusations pile onto anyone so accused. And of course it is not simply those falsely accused who go through the harrowing experience. Wives suffer, relatives and friends.
What comes out is that crime follows fashion. Politicians at the time had been highlighting the low rate of successful rape convictions, thus encouraging the police to pursue accusations with an exaggerated zeal, while the victim compensation scheme clearly turned rape allegation into a possible scam, and a profitable one at that. Glascoe recounts how false accusation can affect one’s life in concise language that never over-dramatizes the circumstances, and yet he gives us a very real sense of the emotional background, and how one learns to cope (and fight) in order to defend one’s innocence.
At least the way the police handle complaints of rape and sexual assault is beginning to change. As the author says in a concluding comment:
In the spring of 2019 they announced they would from now on demand that complainants hand over their electronic devices for their scrutiny. This provoked a furious reaction from women’s groups, who rightly saw it as an intrusion into victims’ privacy. Despite this the policy has been rolled out across the country. It is an invasion of privacy, but it is the only way to get to the truth.
Despite this adjustment, travesties of justice are still bound to occur (devices can be tampered with or lost), and evidence may still be skewed by an eagerness to secure a conviction.
I read this book with a feeling of outrage about how the dice are often loaded against the accused, about how their names are revealed before proven guilty, and about how the accuser remains unnamed and quids in, when all is said and done. That she was groomed by the police to pursue and even embellish her accusations comes out, and in general this is the tale of a sickening experience which makes the reader sceptical about the role of the police and how easily a miscarriage of justice could have occurred (which would have put the author behind bars for twenty years). I have worked in jails, and I have met at least one inmate who I certainly believed to be innocent of the rape charge brought against him, since the logic of his own argument as to why he had been convicted outweighed the logic used to convict him. That innocent people may end up behind bars is indubitable, given that legal ‘proof’ is the opinion of a jury, and this is quite different to the rigour of scientific proof – though even scientific proof seems called into question these days, given the financial power of investment in scientific research.
But this is also a tale of loyalty and support. Loved ones stood with the author, friends realised from the start how ridiculous the accusations were. The state machine may be faulty and capable of wreaking terrible damage to the innocent, but in this case at least, human trust was a buttress in defence, and the finally the truth prevailed.
ANTHONY HOWELL, a former dancer with the Royal Ballet, was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement. He is a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice. Details about his collaborative project, Grey Suit Online, are here. In 2019, his exploration of psychic chaos, Multilation (with Consciouness), was published by the Fortnightly’s imprint, Odd Volumes. His latest collection is From Inside (The High Window).