Friday, 3 May 2013

The Stuart Hall case should put to rest the debate on anonymity for rape defendants

Having strenuously protested his innocence just three months ago, veteran BBC broadcaster Stuart Hall yesterday admitted he sexually abused girls – one of whom was as young as nine.  The CPS described him as an ‘opportunistic predator’ who abused girls over two decades. Having dismissed the complaints against him as ‘malicious and pernicious’, Stuart Hall has now pleaded guilty to 14 counts of indecent assault. 

As the list of celebrities accused of rape and sexual assault gets longer – and more and more survivors are given the confidence that now, after years of being silenced they will be listened to and believed – the argument about anonymity for rape defendants has risen its ugly head again. 

But the Hall case shows more than ever just how vital it is that we continue to name men accused of rape and sexual assault. Because it is this naming that can give survivors and victims the confidence to come forward. 

In Hall’s case, the police and CPS have been vocal in their argument for naming defendants. They have explained how naming Hall helped lead to his guilty admission. As survivors recognised that they were not alone, that he had attacked others, the police were able to gather the evidence they needed to charge and eventually prosecute. The victims did not know one another, and their accounts of the assault were strikingly similar. Without naming Hall, the police might not have learnt this and might not have had the evidence to charge - a charge that led to the guilty plea. 

Perhaps not naming Hall would have still led to this. But it is highly unlikely. With little forensic evidence, naming Hall meant that more victims and survivors felt able to go to the police, who were then able to see patterns in Hall’s behaviour and actions towards his victims – building up the evidence that was needed to charge him. 

We see the same pattern over and over again. Serial rapist John Worboys is a key example in how naming a defendant helped lead to his conviction. After he was named, it became impossible for the police to ignore the weight, the sheer amount, of women coming forward to name him as their rapist. Naming leads to evidence which helps lead to convictions. 

Some argue that if we name the accused we should name the alleged victim. But why? Naming the victim isn’t going to help lead to convictions, it’s not going to help secure justice for rape survivors. People cry ‘false accusations’ but if a woman is charged with that specific crime, then of course she will be named as she will be a defendant herself. The case of Ched Evans shows what can happen when you name the survivor. His victim was victimised all over again when she was subjected to horrific abuse to the point that she had to change her name and flee her home. How can we have ended up in a situation where some treat rapists with more sympathy and respect than their victims?

When criticising the policy of naming defendants, I think people confuse two different issues. The first is the legal issue and the indisputable, mounting, continuing evidence that naming helps convict rapists. The second is media behaviour.

The cheerleaders for anonymity seem to believe that our priority should be to protect the reputations of allegedly violent men, not to collect the evidence to convict. To me, this is part of the rape culture that leads to the sympathetic reporting of even convicted rapists that we saw in Steubenville and, to an extent, with Hall. Suddenly we’re expected to feel pity or sorrow for men who have shown no empathy to their victims because of the way they may be treated in the media.

Whenever I write about this issue, people raise the cases where men have been tried in the media – a ‘trial’ that has ruined their lives. Interestingly, when I write about this issue, people use examples where men have been falsely accused of murder in the press - but no one appears to be asking for anonymity for murder suspects. They instead seem to believe rape is a special case. 

But the fact that the media convict people in their pages and often seem to tread a very narrow line between reporting and contempt of court is not a reason to end the policy of naming defendants. It is too important a policy, too important in bringing justice to victims and survivors, to be dropped because the press behave intrusively. Press behaviour is an issue for the press. If they harass and taunt and wrongly convict men in their pages then that is not the fault of a sensible law that helps bring justice to rape victims. If the press break the law, then that should be dealt with appropriately. It won’t be dealt with by doing away with another law. 

The treatment of named defendants in the press is an issue for the press. It should not be used as an excuse to end a vital and important policy in ensuring justice for rape survivors. In the Stuart Hall case, naming the defendant led to him admitting his offences – something his victims have waited decades to see. The result of the Hall case proves once more just why it is so important to name defendants to empower women and girls to come forward and provide evidence needed to convict. Put simply, bad behaviour in some sections of the media is not a reason to deny women and girls up and down the UK justice. 

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