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  • Writer's pictureJason Nisse

Total Lack Of Recall

In the 1990 movie Total Recall, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays someone whose brain implant, supposedly making him feel like he’s gone on holiday to Mars (sic), goes awry. 34 years later, former Post Office CEO, Paula Vennells, claimed a total lack of recall when presented with damning evidence that she knew that the prosecutions of hundreds of sub-postmaster for errors in the Horizon computer system were – to use the legal terminology – unsafe. What could go wrong?

Faced with some expert questioning by Jason Beer KC, counsel to the Post Office Horizon IT Enquiry, Vennells repeatedly said she couldn’t recall, remember or recollect key conversations, emails or memos that showed that IT contractor Fujitsu could access the system without sub-postmasters’ knowledge, or that expert witnesses for the Post Office couldn’t be relied upon, or that the cases were as watertight as a second hand sieve. This strategy has been ridiculed by the KC, by lawyers for the sub-postmasters and by the media.

So why is she using it?

The “don’t recall” response is the “non-denial denial” of our age. This came to prominence in the 1984 movie Killing Fields when Sam Waterston playing journalist Sidney Schanberg terms a response by the US Consult, played by Spalding Grey, as a “non-denial denial”. In other words I’m not saying something is true or not, I’m just not telling you it’s not true.

Like many communications techniques, the “can’t recall” strategy comes from two directions – politics and the US. Indeed some prominent US politicians have used it regularly, including Donald Trump and Joe Biden (though in his case, who would argue against him forgetting most things?).

It’s beauty – if that is right term – is you cannot argue against it. If someone says “That’s not true” or “I was never sent that memo”, it can be shown to be wrong. If you say “I don’t remember if I saw that”, producing the incriminating evidence doesn’t undermine the answer.

However this defence has two fundamental flaws:

1.      You cannot use it too much unless you claim you have dementia (the Ernest Saunders defence – one for our younger readers);

2.      It doesn’t stop people saying you should have known. If you are a CEO or a Minister, the Harry Truman arguments that “the buck stops here”, is deemed to apply to you.

I’m no lawyer, so this might be a good legal defence, but from a reputation point of view, the total lack of recall strategy is not that helpful. Mind you, Paula Vennells’ reputation was destroyed before she took the stand.

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