Innocent till proven guilty? Not if it’s rape

Rolf HarrisRecently you may have heard that Rolf Harris, a well-known Australian entertainer who has been on the TV for one purpose or another (and in the pop charts occasionally) since the 1960s, was taken in for questioning over a historic accusation of a sex offence of some sort, and released on police bail (i.e. he has yet to be charged with anything, let alone convicted). There is a post here on a feminist blog I read occasionally, which makes the not unreasonable point that Harris having been arrested hasn’t ruined anyone’s childhood even if it leaves a nasty taste in the mouth — it’s those who were sexually abused whose childhoods were ruined. I made the point in a comment that actually, Harris hasn’t been charged, let alone convicted, and that we do not know anything about the claims — where and when the alleged offence happened, for example. Stavvers (the blog owner) called my comment a “non-sequitur” which “smacks of being linked to this obsessive focus on perpetrators rather than survivors”. Another comment, however, from one “rachel scotland”, really took the biscuit:

I’m going to say this one more time today:

“Innocent until proven guilty” isn’t meant for individuals and it’s utterly disingenuous when people pretend it is.

People can (should) assume people are guilty simply on the word of the victim. That simple. There’s no philosophical victory to be won here over who is the most magnanimous towards accused rapists, or who’s the most even-handed with their “listening to both sides” of a sexual assault.

When someone tells you they were raped, you believe them. “Innocent until proven guilty” when you are not a fucking judge means “I don’t want to believe the victim”.

This is a really dangerous position to take. Members of the public are expected to just believe someone is guilty of rape, just because someone says he is — and not someone who has even come to us and told us, but because the media tell us that the police say that someone, about whom no details whatever (not even their sex) have been disclosed, says they have committed a sexual offence of some sort (they have not said rape), that this person is guilty.

The only person who has a duty to believe that a self-identified rape victim is telling the truth is a rape counsellor or some other person whose job it is to advocate for them (and if they do not, they should resign). A juror or judge, depending on who is conducting a trial (if there even is one) has the duty to be unbiased and weigh up the evidence presented to them and judge accordingly. Anyone who doesn’t know about even the first detail of the evidence against someone has no duty whatsoever, other than to refrain from saying something in a public forum that could prejudice any trial (this is actually the law in the UK). If we all assume that a man is guilty of rape just because someone says it, then how are we going to find unprejudiced jurors? It’s not a question of “not wanting to believe the victim”, as I do not know if there is one. While it is known that the proportion of false to genuine rape accusations is small (3%), it’s not negligible and when the accused is wealthy and famous, there are added reasons for doing it — the desire to knock a famous person down, annoyance at having lost out on a contract or been leapfrogged, to name a couple. And the fact that the conviction rate is so low means that mud sticks, even if there is a not-guilty verdict.

A black and white picture of Stefan Kiszko, a man found guilty of a murder in 1976 in the UK after confessing under police duress. His conviction was quashed in the early 1990s.Besides which, a culture in which people generally believed that any specific accusation of rape or sexual assault were true would lead to a lot more false ones, particularly against vulnerable or friendless people (quite possibly, those with learning disabilities — think Stephen Downing or Stephan Kiszko), or those with enemies of whatever kind, or in some places, men from certain minorities. “Innocent until proven guilty” may not be a firm principle for ordinary people, but neither should we believe serious accusations without proof, let alone from unknown quantities on a third-hand basis. It leads to injustice, even if not to wrongful imprisonment — to marriages breaking down, to people losing their jobs or businesses, to violence. It will probably not cause Rolf Harris much harm to see a TV show get pulled at his age, but for a younger artist it could mean a career ended, which is entirely right and proper if he is guilty, but obviously not otherwise.

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  • Mrs Grimble

    I’ve read some rubbish - no, make that PILES of rubbish! - on t’interwebz, but rachel scotland’s comment ranks high for sheer ignorant stupidity.

    Thank you for writing some sense and sanity about this.

  • When I heard he had been arrested, my reaction was entirely emotional - I just saw one of the icons of purity in the popular entertainment industry suddenly implicated in something quite tawdry. I was genuinely very shocked. But as always, some thought needs to be added to such strong feelings before we decide to tweet. In this instance, to my regret, my brain was out to lunch. Rolf got arrested. That’s not a crime.