Daily Telegraph, 7 January 2015
What is the truth about rape in this country? If you listen to some campaigners, you’d believe that innocent men live in fear of false accusations which will ruin their lives, even if charges are eventually dropped. They argue that men who face rape allegations should enjoy the same anonymity as the women or men who accuse them – a demand repeated, this week, after a Conservative MP, Mark Pritchard, was told that there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with the case against him.
Pritchard was arrested last month after a woman went to the police and claimed that he’d raped her. Speaking outside Parliament yesterday, he complained about ‘false’ and ‘vindictive’ allegations made against him and insisted that his identity should have been kept anonymous (he also hinted at the identity of his accuser, drawing criticism from the charity Rape Crisis).
His stance has received support from another Conservative MP, Nigel Evans, who was acquitted last year after a trial on charges of rape and sexual assault.
But these accounts – given by well-known men with easy access to the media – overshadow the untold stories of thousands of women (and some men) whose traumatic experiences you will never hear about. They should be viewed in the context of a study published last year by the Crown Prosecution Service, which showed that false accusations of rape are ‘very rare’. The real story, far from being about unfairness to a small number of accused men, is about the denial of justice to thousands of victims of sexual violence every single year.
The truth is that our criminal justice system is failing to protect victims. And the reasons for that failure present a very powerful case against anonymity for those accused.
Most people have very little idea of how many women are raped in this country each year – or how few of these attacks result in convictions. In my role as Co-chair of the Mayor London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel – and during a career spent writing about the abuse of women – I have had access to those on the frontline and faced the stark reality of how rape victims are treated in Britain.
Last autumn, at a meeting with senior officers from the Metropolitan Police, I was told that more than 2,000 rapes and serious sexual offences had already been reported in London for 2014. One of the officers present said he believed that only a fifth of rapes are actually reported to the police; women’s organisations, who see many victims who dare not report their experience, think that the number is much higher. Few people working at a senior level in the criminal justice system believe that the number of convictions for rape – 2,333 in the year 2012-2013 – bears much relation to the actual incidence in this country.
Even if a case gets to court (and the vast majority don’t), defendants in rape trials stand a better chance of being acquitted than those facing other criminal charges. That is because the public perception of rape – that it is a crime committed by a stranger in a dark alley – is both wrong and stubbornly hard to shift. Most victims know the men who rape them; they are targeted by acquaintances, and current and former partners. It is a shocking fact, confirmed by senior officers I have spoken to. There is a 70 per cent overlap in cases of rape and domestic violence.
Many women fear that they simply will not believed if they go to the police, although attitudes at senior levels are slowly changing. But even victims tend not to realise one crucial fact: rape is usually a serial offence – and that is crucial when it comes to securing convictions. Prosecutions often fail because of a lack of witnesses, which means that the case turns on two people giving conflicting evidence. It’s one person’s word against another’s. What changes all that? The existence of other victims, often completely unknown to each other, whose evidence establishes a pattern of offending behaviour.
When a man (for it is usually a man) is first arrested and charged, it may be on the word of a single complainant. Publicity about the case, including the identity of the accused, gives other victims the courage to come forward. Take one of the most dramatic examples in recent history: police in London had no idea of the extent of the crimes of John Worboys, the ‘black cab’ rapist, until his arrest became public and more than a hundred women came forward.
A senior officer who worked on Operation Yewtree, the investigation into the crimes of Jimmy Savile and others, told me about his shock as the tally of Savile’s likely victims mounted, eventually rising to more than 450.
Even five years ago, the idea that the entertainers Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris would go to prison for sexual offences would have been unthinkable – in each case, the presence of multiple accusers made a conviction more likely. Hall initially faced three historical counts of sexual assault; after he furiously denied the allegations, more victims came forward, including one who accused him of rape. These cases are a very good example of the way in which publicity about charges can lead to a more serious legacy of crime being uncovered.
There is a scandal around rape in this country. But it isn’t about a handful of men who have been wrongly accused, no matter how justifiably angry they are. Compared to the number of cases that never see the light of day, their experience is, I’m afraid, a drop in the ocean. It is about the many thousands of victims who don’t get justice at all – and the main effect of giving anonymity to accused men would be to make that situation even worse.