Ian Watkins verdict: How did he coerce Woman A and Woman B?

Enigmas of this nature are more common than one might expect

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Ian Watkins, was sentenced to 35 years yesterday for a series of child sex offences, including the attempted rape of a baby. His co-defendants, known as Woman A and Woman B, also received lengthy custodial sentences: 14 years and 17 years respectively. 

The case is closed, but questions persist. Perhaps most difficult to fathom is the notion that two young mothers could willingly choose to visit ill-treatment on their own children, in order to indulge their partner’s sexual gratification. However, enigmas of this nature are more common than one might expect.

The Derby house fire trial earlier in the year raised an equally bewildering question, namely how on earth another young mother, Mairead Philpott, could adhere to her husband’s plan to set fire to a house in which six children lay sleeping, five of them her own?   And, for all the forensic scrutiny the case attracted, the question of precisely what compelled Mairead to act as she did was largely overlooked. Why?

A recent comment by the incumbent Lord Chief Justice betrays the answer: we have an insufficient understanding of the nature of coercion. Upholding Mairead’s 17 year prison sentence in the Court of Appeal last month, Sir John Thomas remarked that, unless she had been a willing participant in the plan, it was ‘extremely difficult to understand’ how she did not expose her husband’s lie during the trial and the extensive period when she was separated from his controlling influence. What appears more perplexing, however, is their Lordships’ assumption that such influence is lifted by physical separation.

The experience of practitioners working with victims of coercion is that it is perfectly possible for one human being to take control of another’s mind by breaking down their capacity to think critically i.e. for themselves.  Indeed, the Cult Information Centre identifies no less than 26 mind control techniques. They range from ‘love bombing’ and discouraging questions, to isolating and inducing fear. And whilst some of these techniques may appear relatively innocuous, they can be used in combination to devastating, long-term effect.

It is a mistake to assume that mind control is confined to established cults or group dynamics.  But the task of detecting those who have been subjected to it is an extremely difficult, not to mention uncomfortable, one.  The covert nature of psychological coercion is such that it gives the appearance of being anything but: its victims’ belief that they are thinking for themselves makes their victimhood invisible.  And, that being so, what gives us the authority to say whether someone has or has not been ‘brainwashed’?

Critics of the Church of Scientology will find this ironic, but its reclassification as a religion by the Supreme Court last week highlights the importance that we as a society attach to critical thinking.  And with good reason: it is the closest we have to a vaccine against deception.  We relinquish it at our peril.  And yet, as cases like that of Mairead Philpott may demonstrate, we do not always have a choice.

Mick and Mairead Philpott held a tearful press conference Mick and Mairead Philpott held a tearful press conference

Sometimes, we are told, people’s vulnerability is such that their desire to believe a deceiver’s hopeful message overrides their capacity to question it.  Unwittingly, therefore, they shift in status from admirer to uncritical servant.  It is high time we got our heads round this phenomenon; the fate of several young women may depend on it.

Defence counsel for Woman B, Christine Laing QC, told the court yesterday that her client had been a ‘very immature young woman’ suffering from an undiagnosed personality disorder and postnatal depression when she first spoke with Watkins, and that he had flattered her and promised her a life she could only ever have dreamed of.  She also revealed that he had described himself to Woman B as ‘your master’ and had told her: ‘you and your daughter now belong to me.’  Barrister for Woman A, Jonathan Fuller QC, meanwhile described how his client had been just 17 years old when she met Watkins: a man almost twice her age who ‘darkened her world with drugs and even injected her with heroin’.  

Thus, much of the mitigation for both women appeared to relate closely to the issue of control (or lack of it).   Yet, Mr Fuller QC’s submission that Woman A ‘sacrificed her own moral compass’ to sustain her relationship with Watkins, may highlight an area in which our awareness in this subject can increase.

Any choice, moral or other, presupposes the capacity to choose. And, while we may assume that people choose to enter the morally disorientated worlds in which they find themselves, we do so at the expense of possible alternative narratives. That is, we do so at the expense of justice.

Tom Gaisford is a human rights lawyer with particular experience in immigration and asylum law.

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