Opinion

The common thread in sex crime trials – what Alex Salmond’s trial tells us

Alex Salmond, the First Minister of Scotland who preceded Nicola Sturgeon, resigned from the Scottish National Party in 2018 after being accused of sexual misconduct on 14 accounts. He faced criminal charges in March 2020. 

Nine different women accused Salmond in the course of the criminal trial. Of the fourteen offences brought to court, nine were sexual assault and three were indecent assaults. The other two were attempted rape and assault with intent to rape. The incidents he was charged with span between 2008 and 2014 during Salmond’s time as First Minister, and many allegedly took place at Bute House; Scotland’s equivalent of Downing Street. 

The incidents all have a startling similar structure. Groping of women’s backsides and breasts, placing unwelcome hands on legs and hips, seizing of wrists, non-consensually attempting to kiss their mouths, faces and feet, were typical of the accusations which make up the list. The 2013 incident leading to the ‘assault with intent to rape’ charge, allegedly involved a physical struggle. The 2014 ‘attempted rape’ charge reportedly involved Salmond pinning a woman against a wall, removing her clothes along with his own and pushing her onto a bed, before laying naked on top of her. 

Woman C lamented during her cross-examination the impossibility of their situation: “Who on earth was I going to tell and what on earth were they going to do about it?”. At the time of the incidents, Salmond was “the most powerful man in the country”. The women who made allegations included an SNP politician, party-workers, and several current and former Scottish government civil servants officials – all of whom were aware that their positions would be in jeopardy if they had reported the First Minister. One of the women stated, when asked why she did not report him, responded bluntly: “I liked my job”. It has since been confirmed by Chris Birt (a Scottish government civil servant) that during Salmond’s term in office, rotas were actively drawn up to ensure no female civil servant would be alone with Salmond in Bute House, suggesting there was an understanding amongst those who worked with him that such a situation was unsafe. Alex Prentice QC, the prosecutor of the case, described Salmond as a “sexual predator” who used his position to “satisfy his sexual desires with impunity”. 

This case rings bells of many a #MeToo case, the most prominent of which has just recently reached its conclusion. Harvey Weinstein, in a case with disturbing similarities to this one, was found guilty in New York this year and sentenced to 23 years in prison. It was a decision that should have been inevitable, but somehow,  it was still shocking. Accountability under the law for a man in his position was something that truly seemed too good to be true.  It was a moment that promised hope to survivors of sexual violence all over the world, a moment that suggested perhaps the pendulum was starting to swing in the right way. 

Alex Salmond was cleared of all charges, receiving 13 ‘not guilty’ verdicts and one ‘not proven’. Salmond professed innocence to all the accusations made against him. He calls the claims “exaggerations” or “deliberate fabrications”, apparently unclear on which defence he prefers. A jury found this convincing. Salmond says there is ‘certain evidence’ to his defence which did not make it into court, of which various colleagues of his have publicly stated they find compelling. Such evidence has yet to come to light. 

The defence Gordon Jackson QC opted for is one of a slightly different nature. Rather than denying the incidents in defence of his client, he described them as things one “thought nothing of at the time”. Jackson justified Salmond’s behaviour by stating “that’s the sort of man he was” and told the victims that what they had experienced was “not distressing in any way, shape or form”. This statement was rebutted by Woman A with the sharp response: “you are categorically wrong”. Former advisor to Salmond, Alex Bell, made the point that “when your best defence is ‘I’m sleazy but not criminal’ it’s nothing to smile about”. 

The world at large has a terrible habit of minimising sexual offences, and Salmond’s defence was a perfect example of that. The definition of sexual assault can be found in Section 3 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003. It requires the defendant to intentionally touch another person sexually, without reasonable belief that the person they are touching has consented. Reasonable belief must be based on steps taken to ascertain consent. For example, by asking. As a society, we have normalized sexual abuse. Being catcalled, receiving unwelcome sexual comments, being groped in a bar or nightclub – we treat these experiences as a fact of life. You will struggle to find a woman who has not experienced some form of sexual abuse in their lifetime, although the majority of people are unlikely to view the situation with the gravity one might expect when you hear the term ‘sexual abuse’. A significant percentage of men share the same experiences, often with even less support available. The trauma resulting from sexual abuse is experienced differently for everyone, but it is widely recognised and thus reflected in the law that such actions can cause unspeakable damage. The problem is that this type of damage is difficult to articulate to those that can’t relate at the best of times, and near impossible to explain to those not open to engaging.

It seems as if the court at large, including the defence, accepted that Salmond had done what he was accused of, on almost every count. The decision they made was based on the belief that it did not matter. The fact the actions were “thought nothing of” is a reflection of a society where sexual abuse is so willingly swept under the rug that many do not believe it is even noteworthy when it occurs. It is a decision, echoed on a daily basis, that gaslights victims.  It teaches survivors that their trauma is both irrational and unimportant. And it teaches sexual predators that there is nothing wrong with their behaviour.

The defence rested heavily on another fact. Some of the women who had made accusations had been in contact with each other. The claim was that Woman A, a senior Scottish government official, had contacted one of the other complainers before Salmond was charged, and it was used by Jackson to imply that she had convinced the other eight accusers to invent accusations. He asked Woman H if that was the case and she responded “I’ve done this off my own bat. This isn’t fun. I’d rather not be here”. Although denied by the women involved, his point suggests that communication between victims of the same perpetrator equals collusion; according to Jackson, it “absolutely stinks”. The interesting question is why.

Contact between multiple victims of the same perpetrator is very much in the public interest. The vast majority of offenders are serial offenders, and it seems that only where a pattern of behaviour can be established is there any chance of justice. A disturbing conversation with the support service of a prominent UK University gave insight into the fact ‘the same names come up all the time’, because due to the lack of a centralized reporting system, a service we also lack at the University of Oxford, there is no record and no action against perpetrators who are reported for routine sexual abuse. In the US, The Callisto Project tries to tackle this problem. Callisto Campus is available for universities as a secure detection system for  repeat sexual offenders. If you experience sexual abuse, you have various options on the software, one of which is to enter your perpetrator’s name into Matching to help identify repeat offenders. In reducing the level of sexual violence at a given university, it is widely recognised that serial offenders make up a significant proportion of the statistics, meaning the entire community would be safer if there was a record of who the offenders are and what action was taken. The same would be helpful for national crime databases.

This case weaponised the women’s choice to come together, suggesting it made their case less credible. This argument, as a method of undermining yet another prominent rape trial, is a thinly veiled version of the myth we have heard a thousand times: that women lie about sexual violence. The reality is the number of false rape accusations is no higher than that of false robbery or theft accusations. 

Since the case’s conclusion, Rape Crisis Scotland has warned of a ‘chilling effect’. The trial has exposed the barriers to bringing claims of sexual violence. The complainers stated they were “devastated” by the decision. Mark Hirst, a supporter of Salmond, has promised the women “a reckoning” in a YouTube video in which he also stated “there’s not a cat’s chance in hell they’re going to get away with that” and “that precious anonymity…will not be continued”. Defence lawyer Gordon Jackson was filmed discussing the case and identifying the victims on public transport. He was also heard describing Salmond – the man he defended – as a ‘sex pest’ (an opinion he now denies). Rape Crisis Scotland has made clear that “in seeking vengeance against these women, those commenting on this case should reflect on the message they are sending to all those who have experienced sexual crimes and those who one day will.” 

There are two versions of these events laid out in Alex Salmond’s trial. Either nine different women were convinced to put their lives on pause to go to the police and then to trial, risking enormous damage to their personal lives and careers as well as the possibility of a criminal and/or civil case brought against them, and then lied under oath for fun, fame, or as is the latest suggestion, some kind of political manoeuvre. Alternatively, a guilty man lied to avoid going to prison. 

The verdict was thoroughly unsurprising. Rape trials, even where they are not dealing with extremely privileged and powerful white men, do not have a good track record at achieving convictions in the UK. Helena Kennedy QC, an applauded barrister and former Mansfield College principal, recalls that she became used to seeing “male jurors winking their support for [her] male client before the alleged victim had even finished reading her evidence”. The CPS statistics show that prosecutions are at a 10-year low since records began. The End Violence Against Women Coalition has warned that the disastrous drop in conviction rates; 37.7% in the last year, amounts to what is effectively considered “the decriminalisation of rape”. According to the most recent data, only 1.7% of reported rapes lead to a criminal charge, and the conviction rate for the few that are charged is just under 6%.

It becomes ever more apparent that, aside from those extraordinarily rare exceptions, sexual violence cases share a common thread. A verdict has been reached before anyone enters a courtroom.