Why no compromise on rape anonymity?

Last week it was reported that the coalition government is to go ahead with plans to change the law to give men accused of rape the right to anonymity up to the point where they are charged. There actually was anonymity for rape defendants from 1976 (when it was introduced by a Labour government) until 1988 (when the Tories repealed it), although a judge could refuse to grant anonymity, according to the BBC, “where naming the defendant would make it more likely for other victims to come forward”. It’s a mystery why this discretionary anonymity cannot be reintroduced.

To put simply, where a case is based on an uncorroborated, or weakly corroborated, accusation, this is where anonymity should apply, as this is where a false accusation is more likely to take place (a sexual encounter where there was a misunderstanding, or a one-night stand the victim wants to conceal from her partner, for example). If the man accused is a celebrity of some sort, it is possible for the fact that he has been accused of rape to be reported in the press, along with a whole lot of other lurid details, although such details may be reported in the local press about someone who is not famous. If the man is found not guilty, this is likely to be given much less space than the original accusations were.

According to the Daily Mail, an argument put forward by some judges is that a not-guilty verdict is enough to salvage a man’s reputation. This may be true, technically, in the eyes of the law, but if the papers have printed material about the accused’s life (obtained by paying former girlfriends, for example) which is embarrassing, it won’t make people forget all that. The public may still have the impression that the accused got off on a technicality, and because a not-guilty verdict is not necessarily reached because of a firm belief that the accused is actually innocent, merely that there is not enough evidence to convict, people may still not be convinced that the accused didn’t do the crime.

Protecting people from being smeared is important. Crimes of a sexual nature have always carried a stigma that other violent crimes, even murder, haven’t. Consider the stringent evidence required to convict someone of adultery in Islamic law (and that’s not even rape) and the penalty if the evidence is not met, such as if one of the four accusers changes his mind; making accusations or spreading rumours about women in reaction to some perceived indiscretion is one of the seven worst sins in the whole religion. Such accusations can ruin someone’s reputation for life, significantly reduce their chances of finding a marriage partner or employment in their own community even if they are innocent, and if the victim is a woman, result in her being murdered. All of this is true when the accusation concerns a sexual crime where there is a victim, be it rape or any other form of abuse.

Barbara Ellen, in today’s Observer, claims that the split for and against goes straight along gender lines (on account of a rebellion having been led by three female Tory MPs and one female Lib Dem), and since men rape and women get raped, and in greater numbers than the men who get falsely accused (“no more than a handful” according to her), the women’s voice deserves to be the dominant one. Other feminists claim that such a law would make women who accuse men of rape look like liars; this argument hardly holds water, because male anonymity has nothing to do with the victims, but rather with the reputations of those who are innocent until proven guilty. It would not actually prevent them making the accusations, only prevent the press from making a meal out of them.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with a suspect’s identity being revealed if there is evidence that he has committed a rape or several and he is at large, or if there are multiple, separate accusations (particularly if there is other evidence). It’s the borderline cases, where on the face of it a case could go either way, that require that the accused’s reputation be protected, because an acquittal on the basis of reasonable doubt might not take back a whole lot of hostile press coverage or convince people who believe that there is no smoke without fire.

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