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.  

Comments are closed.