A leading coalition of UK women’s organisations who work to end violence against women and girls in all its forms has written an open letter to Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini and Nigel Evans MP asking them to re-consider their ‘campaign’ for anonymity for those suspected of sexual offences.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition, which includes member organisations who support survivors of sexual assaults, argues in the letter that our legal system is fundamentally an open one where it is extremely unusual ever to grant a suspect or defendant anonymity. When investigating sexual offences the police need to have discretion over when to name suspects for important investigative reasons. The letter also suggests that those who feel harmed by the current status quo are perhaps looking to the wrong cause, and that actually media behaviour and sensationalism around sexual crimes, and a failure to uphold the presumption of innocence, are the bigger issues.
The full text of the letter, which has been posted to the trio care of Nigel Evans MP at the House of Commons, is as follows:
Dear Cliff, Paul and Nigel,
We write to ask you to reconsider your call for anonymity for those accused of sexual offences in order to show respect for – and prevent significant harm to – both survivors of abuse across the UK, and the UK’s legal process.
We represent many survivor organisations who know all too well the trauma caused by sexual violence and the multiple barriers, both internal and external, that survivors face in coming forward and reporting to the police, facing their abuser in court and reliving their most difficult memories without assurance of justice.
We want to say first of all that we are keenly aware of the poor treatment of some men accused of sexual offences who have been salaciously demonized in the media, and who may feel that their guilt has been assumed before any charge was made or trial scheduled. The presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of our justice system and none of us want to see it undermined, ever. Sensationalist media reporting on sexual violence may add to the feeling of harm to reputation, and also helps perpetuate myths about what ‘real’ victims and ‘real’ perpetrators of abuse are like. This is detrimental to justice.
We cannot imagine the newsroom decision-making that leads to a helicopter being commissioned to film a police action. It is disappointing that print, broadcast and online news media reporting on sexual offences has been persistently poor and sensationalist over the very period when police recorded crime figures show that survivors of sexual abuse are reporting in higher numbers than ever before.
While we sympathise with how you feel about your treatment in the media, we do however believe your campaign directed at the criminal justice system, and specifically the rules on anonymity, is a grossly misdirected one, and we hope you will allow us to explain why.
It is vital that we have a system of law, from police through to courts, which is open and transparent. Put simply, when a person is accused of a crime in our legal system, it is important that the rest of the community knows who is accused of what, in order that corroborating evidence can be sought, and indeed in order that alibis or contradicting information may come to light. Openness also helps maintain public confidence in the legal system and enables wider scrutiny of it. There are almost no cases where a defendant would be granted anonymity and we need to think hard about why an exception for sexual offences would be justifiable.
Confusion arises perhaps because those who make an accusation of rape are known to have anonymity and people perhaps think that she (it’s usually a woman; men and boys are of course victims of sexual violence too) has it so ‘the other side’ should too. But this is to misunderstand the legal process.
The special exception granting rape complainants’ anonymity
The accuser, or ‘complainant’, is actually simply a witness – with far fewer court protections that the defendant as it happens – regarding one of the worst things that may ever have happened to them. In 1976 complainants were granted anonymity after research showed that without it the vast majority of victims would not report rape to the authorities. This is for many reasons – survivors of sexual abuse can feel very great shame, they can be fearful of reprisal, they might be wanting to protect friends and family from knowledge of what has happened to them, and much more. While being a victim of rape should not be shaming, right now it is understood that it would not be possible to deliver a measure of justice without permitting anonymity for this special category of witnesses.
The request for anonymity for defendants is a request for an extremely unusual exception for defendants accused of one special category of crimes: sexual offences. The reason often given is shame and harm to reputation. But is it really more shameful to be accused of a committing a sexual offence than to be accused of murder? Or of child cruelty? People accused of those crimes might also not be charged, not brought to trial, or be acquitted. Should we grant them anonymity too? If we started to generally look at anonymity for defendants in crimes where it was thought there might be harm to reputation, would we endanger open justice?
Why we must improve access to justice for rape survivors
It is also really important that this ‘debate’ about anonymity is not conducted separately from the broader, necessary, urgent conversation we need about improving justice for victims of sexual violence. The facts about rape are stark: it is estimated that there are 85,000 rapes committed each year in England and Wales and a further 450,000 sexual assaults. Girls, boys, young women and young men are very disproportionately targeted by those who commit these offences – who are very often repeat offenders. These crimes are challenging in terms of evidence gathering. For many years ‘difficult to prosecute’ rape cases were not brought to trial because those making charging and prosecution decisions knew that court procedure and jury prejudices meant that certain ‘kinds’ of victim were very unlikely to be thought ‘credible’. This might be slowly changing. But the risks to society as a whole of getting the legal response to rape wrong are great.
The myths that surround rape are a fundamental part of what makes justice difficult to attain. As well as ideas about what ‘real’ victims and ‘real’ perpetrators look like and how they behave, there is a persistent belief that women, and men, commonly make false allegations of rape. CPS research on this found that in a period where more than 5,500 rape cases were prosecuted, only 35 people were prosecuted for making a false allegation (a very serious crime), and that false allegations are no higher for sexual offences than for any other crime type. It is absolutely not the case that women, or men, or children, casually make rape allegations; all the evidence shows that in fact our big problem is the enormous reluctance victims have to report. It’s estimated that only 10-15% of rapes are ever reported to police. Sadly, the myth that rape allegations are commonly false and/or vexatious is insinuated, even if it is not intended, in the constant rehearsal of this argument about the need for defendant anonymity. It is very present in public debate which means that survivors of sexual abuse can hear the constant reiteration of the idea that there are lots of false claims – some will internalise this and continue to question whether what happened to them was somehow their fault.
Does your campaign target the wrong problem?
We believe that your call for defendant anonymity is a classic example of where the cause of a problem is misattributed. The harm that those who are accused and acquitted feel is, we believe, a result not of the fact of being named but of terrible media representation of sexual violence cases, accompanied by a collective failure to uphold the presumption of innocence (which as we say above also harms abuse survivors). And for people who are high profile there is perhaps the added complication of police-media relations which might be exploitative.
We should all stand up and tackle these problems – media sensationalism and protecting the presumption of innocence – but it is of the utmost importance that police retain the ability to name a suspect when they have good investigative reasons to do so. We know that in the cases of Rolf Harris and Stuart Hall for example, witnesses who came forward did so because they saw there were other accusations and until that time had believed they were the only victim. It is a terrible fact of Jimmy Savile’s prolific offending that so many of his victims have said ‘I thought I was the only one’ (followed by ‘who would believe someone like me anyway?’) The police have discretion over naming suspects and do not always do so; they might choose not to name, for example, in a case where a suspect has a vulnerability. We should not forget the other holder of power here – the news editor who decides to front page, to use photos, to insinuate, and who is rarely held accountable for this.
Those calling for defendant anonymity sometimes cite opinion polls which show majority public support for what sounds like a ‘common sense’ measure. But when the Government looked at re-introducing defendant anonymity in 2012 they threw it out after legal advice showed the measure was likely to have a detrimental impact on justice for rape overall.
We want more discussion of rape and justice, not less. We want more openness and ever better practice by police and the courts in rape cases. We want the media to change the way it reports on rape. We desperately need a huge increase in provision of specialist counselling and support services for survivors of sexual abuse. And in the long term, we don’t want anonymity for defendants because we don’t want it for those who allege rape either – because one day we will have eradicated the shame of being raped, and made this offence one which can be openly tested in court like all others.
Sarah Green and Rachel Krys, Co-Directors, End Violence Against Women Coalition