REVIEW / False memories and lapsed responsibilities

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The Independent Culture
INSIDE STORY (BBC 1) is still in credit after last week's grimly entertaining account of life in a Birmingham news agency. That programme caused quite a fuss, exciting radio phone-ins and prompting tabloid editors to declare that their own journalists would never dream of using the foot-in-door tactics depicted. Some piously announced that they are reviewing their association with the agency concerned. A pity then that it should be followed up with a programme which excited dark mutterings about journalistic ethics not because of its content but because of its form.

'False Memories' was about False Memory Syndrome, an important subject but one fraught with difficulties for a director. To begin with the notion is hotly contested - those with an emotional investment in the idea of very widespread child abuse resist it fiercely, seeing it as a suppression, conscious or unconscious, of an unpalatable truth; on the other hand those who believe False Memory Syndrome exists - that therapists have been encouraging recollections of abuse that never took place - have to face the danger that widespread acceptance of their views might help to protect the guilty as well as the innocent. This isn't a theoretical debate but a real engagement, which leaves real casualties behind it.

In dealing with it, then, one would need to be extraordinarily vigilant about

any blurring of the distinction between truth and fantasy. 'False Memories' wasn't. It had a stunning opening - an answering machine tape on which a young women poured out a bitter stream of allegations against her father. It was, you might say, child abuse ('you sat at the back in your fucking uniform while you watched other men bugger me') and it vividly conveyed the pain and grief on both sides of a false accusation.

The programme's central contention was that these incidents hadn't actually taken place, indeed that none of the accusations contained in the documentary had any basis in fact. Unfortunately, you can't film something that hasn't happened, so the producer filled the gap with some fantasies of his own, lurid horror-movie vignettes in which young children were menaced by shadowy adults. It offered a titillating confection of evil, as if the audience was too numb or too stupid to get through the programme without easy thrills.

This would have been bad enough in any circumstances, but in a film about the distinction between fantasies and truth, a film that castigated therapists for feeding the imaginations of their patients, it was almost incredible.

What made it even more infuriating was that it was unnecessary, offering a visual crutch to people quite capable of fixing you in your seat with their own stories and showing a timidity about the impact of proper journalistic material. One reporter had secretly filmed a therapist trained in Primary Cause Analysis (a New Zealand-based therapy founded on the idea that everyone has been sexually abused), a remarkable sequence in which you could see for yourself that the madmen were running the asylum.

They had also done some real investigation - showing, for example, that Graham, an industrial chemist accused of gross abuse of his daughter (including breaking her legs with a hammer and forcing her to have sex on stage with local grammar-school boys) simply couldn't have been guilty. Despite medical evidence that the girl was still a virgin, the counsellors persisted in encouraging her fantasies. This, the programme rightly suggested, was a grotesque breach of their responsibilities. I just wish they'd remembered that documentary- makers have responsibilities too.