Guardian, Thursday 1 August 2019
There’s unconscious bias in the criminal justice system against those who’ve been attacked – as I saw in the Yorkshire Ripper case
So what’s the plan? Has rape effectively been decriminalised in Britain? I think we should be told, because that’s what it looks like to me – and no one in authority is prepared to do anything except order another bloody review.
How many reviews do we need? We all know the chances of any rapist being sent to prison are now vanishingly small. The mayor of London’s victims’ commissioner, Claire Waxman, has just published a report on the rapes reported to the Metropolitan police during a single month, April 2016. There were 501 in all, and only 3% led to a conviction – and even they, on average, took 18 months.
Predictably, things have got even worse since 2016, when as many as three in every 100 victims could expect to see their attackers convicted. Up-to-date figures obtained last week by the Guardian show that only one in 65 rapes reported to the police in England and Wales leads to a charge or summons – just 1.5%. But then the criminal justice system has been failing women for decades – and I think I know why.
Rape is unique because there is no other crime where victims are regarded with such a degree of scepticism, not least from the professional experts: police and prosecutors. The culture of suspicion is now so deep-rooted that police forces are subjecting complainants to a massive invasion of privacy, demanding that they hand over mobile phones and school, college and medical records that predate the alleged attack by decades.
Just about every other expert on sexual violence – feminist lawyers and academics, chief executives of women’s organisations and victims themselves – is outraged by this. But they tend not to be highly regarded by the criminal justice system; sometimes they’re even regarded as opponents, as endlessly making unreasonable demands and banging on about the impact of inequality. Black women are overrepresented among the victims in Waxman’s report, yet we know from organisations supporting black and minority ethnic women that they fare even worse when it comes to getting support after an attack, let alone justice.
This is a powerful argument for diversity in the criminal justice system. Unconscious bias abounds, something I first noticed when I covered the Yorkshire Ripper murders as a young reporter in the late 1970s. Peter Sutcliffe’s victims included white, black and Asian women, including a 14-year-old schoolgirl and a 34-year-old doctor from Singapore. But the investigation was placed solely in the hands of white working-class men who then reinforced each other’s prejudices.
Detectives catastrophically misconstrued the killer’s motivation, insisting he was driven by a hatred of prostitutes and categorising his attacks on other women as “mistakes”. They dismissed the testimony of one of the surviving witnesses, who insisted that the man who had brutally attacked his victims spoke with a Yorkshire accent. Instead they convinced themselves that they were being taunted by the killer, haring off in search of a fraudster from the north-east who mocked them in letters and a tape. And the real killer, Peter Sutcliffe, remained free to attack other women.
It was a painful insight into the failure of the criminal justice system to understand the nature of male violence. Years later I had another epiphany, when I noticed that all the men who carried out fatal terrorist attacks in London and Manchester in 2017 had a history of abusing women. When I pointed it out in a meeting with one of the country’s most senior police officers, he looked aghast and said no one had mentioned the connection before. The next time I saw him, he told me he had returned to Scotland Yard and asked if there was any data on terrorists who had previously abused wives or girlfriends – and was told it didn’t exist.
Counter-terrorism experts had somehow managed to miss the vital link between mass killers and violence against women and girls. Yet I found enough examples of it to write an entire book, listing dozens of terrorists and mass shooters who started out by terrorising female family members. Several cases I studied, including the Finsbury Park mosque attacker Darren Osborne, became “radicalised” and turned on members of the public after they’d been thrown out of the family home. Women who work with victims of domestic and sexual violence had noticed the pattern – but nobody talked to them.
Official investigations into male violence are divided into silos, something which allows damaging myths to flourish. Eight years ago, following a series of damning reports by the then Independent Police Complaints Commission about the force’s handling of serious sex offences, the Met adopted a new policy of believing women (and men) who reported a rape. It shouldn’t be a big deal for officers to accept that a sexual crime has been committed, just as they do when someone reports a burglary, but even getting that far had taken years of campaigning. Last year, however, the Met police commissioner, Cressida Dick, reversed it.
It was part of the fallout from Operation Midland, the force’s catastrophically mishandled investigation into lurid claims about the existence of a VIP paedophile ring by a man known as “Nick”,. The Met’s reputation is still suffering, especially now that “Nick” has been revealed to be the convicted paedophile and fraudster Carl Beech – who was sent to prison for 18 years last week for perverting the course of justice.
Detectives are not usually so quick to believe rape allegations, and it’s hard to avoid a weary sigh over the way senior officers allowed themselves to be duped by a male fantasist. But it’s also hard to think of a more egregious example of listening to the wrong people – men talking among themselves, in other words, as they have for centuries.
The criminal justice system needs to do many things if it is serious about tackling its dismal track record in rape cases. One of the very first is showing some humility and listening to the people who really know what’s going on. Frankly, if you really want to understand male violence, you need to listen to women.