For almost two years I worked as a volunteer counsellor with young victims – at times it was more hair-raising than my professional job in a newsroom. It was done by telephone, but it had its lighter moments.
A girl in hospital asked me to sing a song with her. It was probably a generational thing, but I did not know the lyrics which danced off her tongue so easily. She knew it off by heart, so we compromised and I joined in on the chorus.
And I’ll never forget my debut call – from a very young girl finding it hard to put earrings on. What could a middle-aged bloke possibly say to help?
I was transfixed by fear of messing up or letting her down, and broke into a sweat. A sympathetic female counsellor came to my rescue with a very sensible suggestion that she should use a mirror.
A lot of it was pretty grim, though. The worst times for me were the terrible silences. Youngsters were often too frightened or traumatised to say anything after calling. I would try every trick in the book to get them to talk.
It was devastating to hear a click as they hung up and returned to whatever hellhole in which they were trapped without uttering a single word. On the other hand it was exhilarating when a caller opened up and began talking – pouring it all out into the ear of someone who was prepared to listen, but not judge, meant everything.
All this came flooding back as Meghan Markle complained to ITV after Piers Morgan said “I don’t believe what she says”. It followed her Oprah Winfrey interview and revelations of suicidal thoughts while living the life of a royal.
Her point about the complaint was that other victims might be put off from coming forward.
I heard the same claim during recriminations over the Alex Salmond harassment inquiry at Holyrood – that alleged victims in similar cases would be too frightened to complain.
Some might be sceptical about the likelihood of such a negative reaction. But from my own volunteering experience I know it to be true.
One of the biggest barriers to coming forward among victims suffering mental illness, as a result of sexual abuse or psychological issues and bullying, is fear of not being believed. I heard “nobody will believe me” time and time again as they sobbed down the phone.
All they wanted was a shoulder to cry on and a guide to seeking help, a bit like Meghan, I suppose. I was not sitting in judgment, but there does come a time when alleged victims should be tested or challenged over the veracity of their accounts.
Piers Morgan fell into a hole he dug himself – he cast doubt on her mental health issues at the same time as his ITV bosses were running a high-profile mental health awareness campaign. His fate was sealed.
Morgan and I both went to the same journalism training college near London, but at different times. During my spell another ITV daytime star, Richard Madeley, was a classmate.
What was drilled into us at a very early stage was the need for watertight accuracy at all times, and corroborating evidence to back up allegations by interviewees. It breeds a natural scepticism, but Morgan went too far.
I do agree with his general views on free speech, however. He likes to use a Churchillian quote about some people being all for free speech – as long as everyone else agrees with them.
It could have been made for social media today – lo and behold anyone who disagrees with the mob who see themselves as judge and jury.
Buckingham Palace alluded to possible inaccuracies in Meghan’s account with its coded “recollections may vary” statement.
But it is now out there and hit home like a guided missile. Meghan’s apparently sincere recollections must be investigated thoroughly. Claims that a paper trail of emails and texts support her mental health ordeal will pile more pressure on the royal family. The Harry and Meghan damage will linger around the royals like a permanent limp.
This is a bad omen at a critical stage when the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cambridge are preparing for a new era.
The ironic thing is Harry and Meghan might continue to shape this challenging royal evolution from faraway California.
But the royals cannot deal with the allegations privately. The Scottish Government learned the hard way about keeping things out of the public eye.
Both institutions must repair corrosive effects on their integrity and public trust – or the stains will never wash out.