If it had not been for one small but vital fact it could have been so different. Last Thursday night's TV schedules could have been cleared for 'special investigations' into the background of a jailed soap star. Today's 'papers could have been filled not with allegations of bias in the judge's summing up by an aggrieved actor, but by 'world exclusives' from the women, now vindicated, who - a jury of twelve men and women had found - had indeed been subjected to sexual attacks and violations. But as we know, those programmes and special features, which would have been weeks if not months in preparation in the event of a 'guilty' verdict, will have been binned, quite possibly physically shredded (or electronic equivalent), because the accused was found not guilty of all charges.
Within weeks of me starting in my first professional job in radio, as a newscaster/reporter, the former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe was tried at the Old Bailey on the sensational charge that he, with others, conspired to murder Thorpe's former male lover.
I vividly remember being in the newsroom, as the jury retired to consider its verdict, when a programme came 'up the line' with the most dramatic (and, I have to say, convincing) reconstruction (backed by sinister music) of the alleged conspiracy, so that stations could broadcast it immediately after a 'guilty' verdict.
When Thorpe and the other defendants were cleared - after the most astonishingly defence-favourable summing up by the judge, gloriously lampooned shortly afterwards by Peter Cooke in the first Secret Policeman's Ball benefit gig for Amnesty International - word came immediately from London that the tapes must be binned. Not only that, but we had to confirm that no copies had been made and that any recordings must not only be wiped by physically destroyed! The News Editor, accompanied by several of us in the newsroom as witnesses, took the single tape copy out into the car park, and constructed - somehow - a small bonfire and solemnly watched the tape burn. He then went back inside and confirmed in writing - with witness signatures - what he had done.
Since the conclusion of his trial for rape and sexua assault, friends of Bill Roache - the sole surviving member of the original cast of Coronation Street, and indeed thought to hold the record for the longest term of any actor playing the same character anywhere in the world - have been demanding that the law which grants anonymity to alleged victims of serious sexual offences but not those charged with those offences, should be reviewed. The damage to a person's reputation from such trials is so great, they - and others - argue, with the parading of a person's sexual and other deeply personal matters put on open view and subject to intense examination and cross- examination - that even if, like Roache, the defendants are found not guilty, they are still likely to be condemned by many and have their reputation and character torn to shreds. "There's no smoke without fire" argument. And "they must have good reason to think he did it", etcetera. But those who argue for anonymity for defendants - until and unless proved guilty - should, I respectfully argue, think this through.
For what they are arguing for is, in effect, secret courts. If the identity of those charged is not to be known, then they are arguing for a complete ban on press and public from attending the hearings. It is a profound principle of our centuries-old system in England that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. Without the press and public in attendance there is no way of knowing if everything has been done correctly and fairly - or being able to support or challenge decisions taken by the courts.
And imagine the rumours and counter-rumours that would swirl around, especially in the age of social media. Why has an actor suddenly disappeared from a long-running show? Combine that with rumours of, say, peadophilia charges being brought against a TV celebrity. Two and two put together, probably quite wrongly. The actor might be taking a break for all kinds of reasons: illness, some kind of personal trauma involving himself, partner or children, including mental illness. He (it's usually a he) would feel obliged to make a public statement, revealing the true reason for his absence, which if not full and frank might be dismissed as a 'cover story' (and still might in any case). Worse still in a away, say that person IS on trial on sexual charges, but as this isn't known to the public (but might be to a few 'insiders' in the media), all kinds of highly damaging, prejudicial material about that person might be aired - or re-aired.
For example, in the trial of Bill Roache, a rather unwise TV interview that he gave about his self-acknowledged prolific sexual past, was deemed inadmissable and the jury was specifically ordered not to try and view it online. Now, in fact, the Contempt laws mean that you can still be 'done' for unwittingly prejudicing a trial. But it would surely cause public outrage for a jounalist or an 'ordinary' member of the public to face criminal sanctions in such circumstances. And this clampdown on reporting anything which might be prejudicial - including anything that might not be put before a court - comes into play as soon as someone is charged, which can be the best part of a year before a trial begins.
Much as I am a fervent advocate for press freedom, I believe even more strongly with the English system of justice: that every person facing serious charges must be tried openly, by a jury of his peers, who must decide on - and ONLY on - the evidence put before them and the cross- examination of witnesses, as to whether that person did THAT crime on that occasion, beyond all reasonable doubt.
Not that he probably did it, or if he didn't do it that time he probably did something similar in the past and got away with it...and anyway he looks a bit of a rogue and I feel sorry for his (alleged) victim...etcetera!
And furthermore, I believe that journalists must be restricted to reporting fairly and accurately that - and ONLY that - which happens in court. Not 'backround material' from alleged witnesses, or allegations about the person's past life, and definitely not interviewing jurors at any time, and so on.
Even if a person is found guilty there is still some protection for coverage involving character assassination that was not part of the trial or of that case, through our defamation laws (although it's generally reckoned that a convicted murderer, say, is unlikely to have much of a chance of a successful libel claim, even if the journalists can't 'prove' other alleged transgressions and this is likely to be even more the case with the new Defamation Act).
The right to a fair trial is one of the greatest part of our liberty and must never be compromised. But equally I never want us in this country to have secret trials. I would like much more openness in civil cases, too - and at last it seems our Family Courts are to be opened up. That is a corner of justice that has been kept in the dark, beyond scrutiny, for far too long. Secrecy in justice is not justice, and casts a sinister glow over all court proceedings, and lends itself to abuses by the powerful, injustices and corruption. Daylight is the best disinfectant.
Where I do think there needs to be some movement is in naming people BEFORE they have been charged. Not so long ago it would be 'a 42 year old man (or whatever) is helping the police with their enquiries'. No names given and journalists would have to be very careful of identifying someone, even if the name was given by a senior police officer. For a start, although that formula of words very often DID mean the police thought they 'had got their man', sometimes it genuinely was a case of them helping with enquiries - as a witness. And very often, of course, no charges were brought. This recent development of routinely describing named people as having been 'arrested' is not good. Until charges have been formally put, we do not know whether there is sufficient evidence to justify a prosecution (the time-honoured tests being that there is a at least a 50% chance of conviction and that it is in the public interest).
So, what's this about me ruining Bill Roache's radio career? Well, OK, it's a fair cop, guv. That was a Sunday tabloid-styley 'tease headline' for putting a bit of a sensational gloss for a not very interesting story. But here goes!
Back in the late '80s I was working at Red Rose Radio, in what I now refer to as my 'Alan Partridge Years'. (This may have some salience as, at that time, Steve Coogan, when he wasn't doing voices for 'Spitting Image' used to do a lot of commercial voice-overs, and not infrequently he would be sitting in reception at the station when I arrived, waiting to be called in to his bit, and would be listening intently to the output. I was what I would call on 'nodding acquaintance' with him - definitely NOT 'great showbiz mates'!. Anyway, I and my fellow ‘top jocks’ may have been part of his inspiration).
Sorry, but more name-dropping to come! Part of my duties as Senior Presenter (no less) was to present the top-rated Sunday morning request show. I was due to go on holiday and the boss thought it a good wheeze if they had a star name presenting it. Yes, you've guessed it: Bill Roache was to be my stand in!
In fact, the station, for one based in a workaday (although historic) place like Preston in Lancashire, was quite showbizzy: the Board of Directors featured 'local lass' Victoria Wood, along with Russell Harty and cricketer Clive Lloyd. They all turned up for the board meetings once a month. The Chairman was Owen Oyston - a champagne socialist millionaire, who lived on a huge ranch surrounded by bison (or it might have been buffalo) and who was later, as it happens, convicted of rape: a charge which he continued to deny and so jeopordised early release from prison, an issue which led to aan important judgement in circumstances such as this. Anyway, all THAT was some way into the future. But it was a very ambitious station, being the first to acquire others and forming a little group. Yes that was done form a station in Lancashire - not 'that London'! It was also one of the happiest periods in my professional life, with some of the nicest people you could ever wish to work with and I was made welcome right from the 'off'.
So I was introduced to Bill Roache (remember him?), who by then was just about getting the hang of playing Ken Barlow, having been in 'Corrie' for a mere 27 or 28 years, and would it be alright if he sat in on my show and could I teach him the ropes? I was happy to do so of course (new bragging rights) and in fact he dutifully sat beside me for several full programmes.
But radio presenting then was quite demanding in the technical sense. You operated all the equipment, and this was when most of the music was still on vinyl - which involved finding the record, taking it out of its sleeve, putting on turntable, 'taking level', cueing up, etc.; not just pressing a button on a pre-determined list! Every track had to be manually logged on paper: title, artist, composer, arranger (if any), publisher, record label, record number, and the duration for which it was actually broadcast. Then there were the commercials, all of which were on separate tape 'carts' and which again had to be physically located in giant racks, slotted into the machines and then played in manual sequence. Lots of buttons! Then you usually answered all your own phones for requests and so on, deal with traffic and travel news, 'back-time' everything so you exactly hit the time to the split second for the news (which was taken from IRN and so would not wait, with a 25 second lead up for jingle and local headlines for the stories to immediately follow the national news), and so on. There might also be several items to lace up on bulky reel-to-reel tape machines, as well as guests to interview, involvng chatting them before putting them on air, settling them behind the mic', trying to make them relax. Inbetween all of this you had to try and find a few things original, interesting or even witty to say. Hence the numerous Alan Patridge-isms. (You can hear me 'driving' the desk and co-presenting an edition of the daily Red Rose Reports from the late '80s here. Jeez, that was hard work!).
Well, Bill was keen to learn. He studied it all with great attention, wrote notes, asked intelligent questions: not at all 'starry', in fact almost deferential; certainly very polite, courteous and gentlemanly. In the end I think he decided that he couldn't cope with it all; anyway, it never happened. So there you are: I killed off a nascent radio career.
That's all I have to say about him. That's all I know first hand. I've never seen him since - I did see and was quite friendly with another Corrie actor, Bill Tarmey (Jack Duckworth), who came in a couple of times to plug his singing career. But all I know of what did or did not happen between Bill Roache and some women/girls 45-50 years ago... is what I've read and seen of the reports of the case.
What I do know is that 12 of his peers unanimously found him not guilty of all charges. And that really is all that matters. As my paternal Grandad would say: "People will think what they want to think". But these really are the only facts that matter and in my view should be accepted. I'll perhaps write more on celebrities and sexual allegations and judging from today's perspectives and attitudes on events that happened in a very different country and culture thirty or forty years ago, when certain other cases have completed. But not before. The right to a fair and open trial and the unadulterated course of justice is really, REALLY important. Not least, because, my friends, one day it could be any of us in that dock, facing charges of which we are entirely innocent.