TELEVISION / Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE adjusted my own views on the suggestibility of children since the birth of my own. My oldest son, now two and a half year's old, is not what you would call a reliable witness. Ask him what he had for lunch at the nursery and the menu is likely to consist of the first foods that come to mind. Help him out with specific questions and he will cheerfully assent to anything. The other day, for example, he tucked into dinosaur sandwiches and monkey pudding.

I don't intend to ask the council health officer to investigate this unconventional diet because I recognise two things - firstly that I was guilty of suggestion and secondly that he is still coming to terms with the distinctions between truth and imagination. It is not that he is incapable of making truthful statements - just that he is at an age where 'making a statement' is a complex cocktail of assent, invention and direct reporting. He 'tells' me things constantly but his means of doing that are still as often non-verbal as verbal.

Making a statement in court requires an entirely different degree of certainty; one of the most alarming elements of Innocence Lost (C4), Ofra Bikel's account of a celebrated American sex abuse case, was the eagerness with which parents, policemen and therapists accepted that very small children are capable of a forensic exactitude, provided, that is, that they say what you want to hear.

The case against Bob Kelly and his wife, who ran the Little Rascals daycare centre in Edenton, North Carolina, rested on the statements of children alone. It was unsupported by medical evidence or parental testimony and in many cases directly contradicted by common sense. Grotesque and sadistic sexual abuse was alleged to have taken place in a school that was visited by parents at all times of the day, without notification. 'I still lie in bed at night and think, 'How could they have done it?' ' said one mother, and it wasn't a question about motive but opportunity.

Those who believe that child sexual abuse is more widespread than reported sometimes rhetorically ask what it is that makes society so determined to block out what our children tell us. The question here was exactly the opposite: what appetite can lead a community of loving parents into carefully constructing a nightmare, even if it involves ignoring their children to do it? In the moral panic that followed the first rumour, silence or denial was interpreted as suppression and the blithe normality of the alleged victims simply ignored. The longer it took to get what they wanted the more it confirmed the initial truama: 'It took about 10 months before she felt comfortable and safe enough to indicate that there was something that had happened there,' said one mother, untroubled by the thought that for 10 months she had simply ignored her daughter's denials.

The police officer who initially investigated the case has destroyed her notes of the initial interviews with the children and misplaced the tapes, so it is impossible to tell how much she coached those she talked to. But elsewhere it was made clear that the community was in a spasm of coercive credulity - one sceptical mother recalled that a child had had its dessert withheld until it 'confessed' the details of its assault. Another mother, one of the believers, confirmed the sense of parental need with a telling slip: 'There were times when I wanted to pick her up and say 'Please tell me who did what to you?' and I did ask . . . Cut this, wait a minute . . . I don't want to incriminate myself here.' Bob Kelly was convicted, and in tonight's concluding episode doubtful jurors explain why. Juries, it seems, are no better at resisting psychological pressure than small children.