Treating rape victims as ‘liars’ will set British justice back by decades

Joan Smith Co-chair of the Mayor’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board

Daily Telegraph, Tuesday 28 August 2018

Why on earth wouldn’t the police believe rape victims? It seems mind-boggling, but plans are afoot by senior officers to abandon the national policy of believing individuals who report rape or sexual assault.

The proposal to abandon the policy – agreed by most chief constables, as well as Met commissioner Cressida Dick – would see the “belief” practice erased from the national guidelines and replaced with “the intention that victims can be confident they will be listened to”.

The whole thing is rightly causing controversy and has been criticised this week by victims’ commissioner, Baroness Newlove. In a powerful intervention, she has called the plan ‘a retrograde step’ for justice, warning that victims will be less likely to come forward if they think they won’t be believed from the outset. Lady Newlove highlights the risk of reversing the ‘great strides’ made in recent years by the criminal justice system, and she challenges the idea that police officers won’t be able to conduct a robust and impartial investigation if they begin by believing the victim.

This is the claim at the heart of the matter – and it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that chief constables have confused two different things. Starting from a position of belief builds public confidence in the police and has undoubtedly contributed to the growing willingness of victims to report sex crimes. It doesn’t mean that a complainant’s claims won’t be investigated, just as someone reporting the theft of a car or a burglary would expect to have their account tested to see if it stands up to scrutiny.

The criminal charges brought against the disgraced producer, Harvey Weinstein, are a case in point. The #MeToo movement began with women telling their stories and now some of the key allegations are going to be tested, quite properly, in court. If they had had more confidence in the criminal justice system, it might have happened sooner – and the fact that one of his accusers, the Italian actress Asia Argento, has herself been accused of assaulting a 17-year-old actor, certainly doesn’t invalidate the whole #MeToo campaign. 

The idea that the police simply accept everything a rape victim says, without carrying out an investigation, is simply ludicrous – and that’s one of the reasons why campaigners are so opposed to the proposed change in policy. They think this is more to do with embarrassment over a high-profile case that went spectacularly wrong, subjecting the Metropolitan Police to savage public criticism – and that it’s led senior officers to draw completely the wrong conclusion.

It all goes back to Operation Midland, an investigation into the lurid allegations made by a man known only as ‘Nick’. A senior officer described his claims about a paedophile ring at the heart of the establishment as ‘credible and true’ – but Nick was later charged with perverting the course of justice.

Operation Midland was always a highly unusual investigation, including the fact that the police took the very risky course of commenting publicly before they had finished testing ‘Nick’s’ claims. That was a huge error but it’s not usual practice in sex cases, and could easily have been avoided. Nor is it a good reason to change policy in relation to every single allegation of rape or sexual assault, risking the destruction of much of the confidence in the police that’s been built up in recent years.

Senior officers have clearly been stung by the remarks of Sir Richard Henriques, the retired judge who examined Operation Midland. He argued that officers’ judgement had been warped by the ‘automatic belief’ policy, even though it’s clear that this was a case in which they took it to unusual extremes. Automatic belief doesn’t preclude asking questions, looking for supporting evidence and keeping an eye out for inconsistencies. All of that already happens in rape cases, to a point where complainants sometimes feel as if their entire private lives are being picked apart.

Each year, the number of individuals reporting rape is rising, but that trend will be put in jeopardy if victims – the vast majority of whom are telling the truth – fear a return to the bad old days. For far too long, rape victims were met with scepticism and sometimes outright disbelief, based on the myth that there is a higher rate of false allegations in rape cases than in other serious crimes. There’s no evidence for this, as a study commissioned by the then Director Public Prosecutions, Sir Keir Starmer (now a Labour MP), pointed out.

But it created a situation where notorious predators like the black cab rapist, John Worboys, were able to go on attacking women with impunity even after some of his victims went to the police. It was scandals like the Worboys case, and the failure to properly investigate the crimes of Jimmy Savile, that led to the policy change in 2011 when the National Police Chiefs Council issued the instruction that victims should be believed.

It’s had a positive effect, as recorded crime figures show, but now it’s in jeopardy for all the wrong reasons. The NPCC is currently consulting on the change but leading figures, including Lady Newlove, are worried – and they’re right to be.

The problem of rape in this country isn’t too many false allegations. It’s that the vast majority of rapists get away with their crimes, a fact almost entirely ignored in this frankly demeaning discussion of whether victims deserve to be believed. Treating complainants as potentially dishonest from the outset will reinforce one of the most damaging rape myths – and set victims’ rights back by decades.  

KIller smog, Poirot and a dark secret in the Black Forest

Sunday Times, 26 August 2018

London in the 1950s is a city of bomb sites and shored-up buildings, shrouded in fog. Ex-soldiers, refugees from Europe and small-time crooks mingle in Notting Hill, where a man called John Christie is offering to help women who have breathing problems. 

Few people remember the great smog of 1952 that killed thousands, but its choking effects are vividly evoked in Breathe (Hodder £17.99), an outstanding debut by
Dominick Donald. His protagonist, PC Dick Bourton, has been on the force for only six months when he starts to notice a series of deaths across London involving older people who live alone. Distracted by the failing health of his Russian fiancée, he gradually realises he is on the track of a serial killer. Donald combines historical events and fictional characters to superb effect, in a novel that deserves to win prizes
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Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Little, Brown £18.99) opens in 1944 with a couple of men burying something in an isolated area of the Highlands. Whatever they were up to falls outside the remit of Chief Inspector Karen Pirie’s historic crimes unit, which deals with cases less than 70 years old. But when the granddaughter of one of the men turns up, clutching a map left behind when he died, she finds something buried far more recently — a body that has been in the earth for no more than 25 years. McDermid’s novels about cold cases have solid plots and fascinating forensic detail.
The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins £18.99) is the third in a series by Sophie Hannah that brings back to life Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. Hannah is also the author of a series of bestselling thrillers and she brings her passion for verbal clues into her latest Poirot. Four people have received letters, apparently from the Belgian detective, accusing them of the murder of a man called Barnabas Pandy — but Pandy wasn’t murdered and three of the recipients claim never to have heard of him. Inspired by a cake made of coloured squares, Poirot sets about arranging the “suspects” in different combinations and reveals the solution to the mystery in a classic set-piece in a country house. It is all done with great affection but feels more like a late-1920s stage set than the real thing.
A Summer of Murder by Oliver Bottini, translated by Jamie Bulloch (MacLehose £16.99), is the second in Bottini’s acclaimed Black Forest investigations. It has a plot as surprising as the earlier novel, which began with a Buddhist monk tramping through the snow. This time, fire fighters are called to a burning barn that explodes, revealing a hidden arms cache. Chief Inspector Louise Boni is assigned to a fractious task force whose suspects include neo-Nazis, terrorists and rival factions from the Bosnian war. Boni is a bit too much of a stereotype, the emotional woman detective whose intuitions infuriate her male colleagues yet prove correct. But Bottini makes up for this with taut writing and pacy events.  

Worthy of Hitchcock

Sunday Times, 5 August 2018

In an uncertain economic climate, the finances of even the most affluent couples may be more unstable than they appear. Mark is an investment banker, Erin a documentary-maker, and they’ve just booked their dream honeymoon in Catherine Steadman’s twisty first novel, Something in the Water (Simon & Schuster £12.99).Then disaster strikes: Mark loses his job and the couple face returning home from their luxury hotel in the south Pacific to a very uncertain future. They’re still trying to convince each other that everything will be all right when temptation floats into view, in the shape of a suitcase stuffed with hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Steadman, who is an actress with Downton Abbey among her credits, tells the story from Erin’s point of view but doesn’t spare either of her main characters. Erin and Mark believe they’re decent, hard-working people but they discover undreamt-of pockets of greed and dishonesty as soon as they’re tested. The money is tainted, linked to some very dodgy individuals, and paranoia sets in as sinister messages and unexplained events disturb their comfortable lives in north London. The break-down of their relationship is brilliantly described, and it all kicks off with an opening scene worthy of Hitchcock.

A long-running series of crime novels provides some of the same pleasures as soap opera, offering the latest instalment in the lives of familiar characters. Careless Love (Hodder £20) is the 25th book in Peter Robinson’s best-selling series featuring DCI Alan Banks, a thoughtful detective based in the fictional Yorkshire town of Eastvale. Banks is divorced, with two grown-up children and excruciating taste in music, but Robinson never allows the detective’s backstory to get in the way of some very contemporary plots.

His novels track the changing nature of crime, taking on difficult subjects such as gangs of men who groom under-age girls for sex, and the new book tackles the contentious subject of widening inequality. Two corpses are discovered on the moors, a student dressed for a night out and an older man in a business suit, with no obvious connection between them. The inquiry leads to a group of successful middle-aged men with access to expensive lawyers, but Banks is determined to uncover a scam involving sex, drugs and the exploitation of vulnerable young women.

The brooding presence of Kinder Scout, the highest point in the Peak District, hangs over Stephen Booth’s fine novel, Fall Down Dead (Sphere £20). Each year, a group of walkers sets out in commemoration of the mass trespass in 1932, when hundreds of ramblers defied local landowners in defence of the right to roam. The little group is led by Darius Roth, a local man who claims to be a descendant of one of the original protesters, but he ignores warnings about the weather. With one member of the party injured and no signal on their mobile phones, the walkers separate and a woman falls to her death in the fog. DI Ben Cooper suspects that the death wasn’t accidental but he has nothing to go on but his gut feeling – and some painstaking detective work that harks back to a less forensically-driven age of crime fiction.

Clare Askew’s memorable and moving first novel, All the Hidden Truths (Hodder £12.99), presents the police in Edinburgh with a highly unusual crime. When an engineering student walks into college one morning and murders 13 young women before killing himself, everyone knows the identity of the perpetrator. The investigation that follows focuses on three women – a police inspector, the killer’s mother and the mother of the first victim – in a harrowing examination of the causes and consequences of mass murder.