Jill Saward, the Press and civil liberties

Last week Jill Saward (pronounced Say-ward), best known for having been the victim of the notorious “Ealing Vicarage” rape attack in 1986 in which she was raped and subjected to other sexual assaults and her father and boyfriend were beaten up and suffered head injuries during a burglary, died of a brain haemorrhage. In the 31 years since the attack she had become known as a campaigner on issues surrounding rape, at one point supporting the introduction of a kind of second-degree rape as found in the USA and perhaps other places, more recently for better education of jurors in rape trials. In the early 90s she testified about the intrusion her family had suffered from the press after the attack; more recently, she stood in a by-election in Yorkshire, in which the sitting MP had resigned in protest at extended detention for terrorist suspects; her platform was in favour of all of these things and of making the national DNA database universal; however, she made very little impact and lost her deposit.

Jill Saward is the person who first really made me aware of rape and the impact it has on victims with a programme she was featured in, titled No Great Trauma?, which I saw in late 1992; in the couple of years following that, when rape was used very widely as a weapon of war in Bosnia, with the perpetrators often people who knew the victims’ families before the war and there had been no previous hostility between them, there was much discussion in the press as to why men rape and whether “all men were potential rapists”, which the pattern of behaviour in Bosnia suggested to some that they are. At the same time there was a series of controversies about media intrusion, particularly into the lives of politicians and the royal family but crime victims, including the Sawards, were also affected. She gave evidence to the National Heritage Select Committee that year:

Ms Saward described how she and her family were besieged in the vicarage by the press after the attack. She told the committee that the press had hired a room in a pub across the road from the vicarage and used long-range cameras to take photographs. ‘The first thing the press wanted was to photograph me continually. They photographed anything that moved anywhere near the house. I had to leave the house covered by a blanket in a policewoman’s car so that the press could not photograph me,’ she said.

The law forbids the identification of rape victims, but she was offered large sums of money to sell her story exclusively to some newspapers. Ms Saward said the News of the World used a cartoon inaccurately depicting the attack, which she found ‘totally offensive’, and the Sun published a photograph of Ms Saward with her eyes blacked out, which she said was a ‘major invasion’ of her privacy.

A Tory MP asked her whether she preferred to see legal regulations of the Press or self-regulation; she answered that she preferred the latter, but did not trust the press to regulate themselves. The scandal disappeared, nothing much was done until 2011 when another scandal involving press intrusion into the lives of crime victims triggered the Leveson inquiry, at which Baroness Hollins, whose daughter Abigail Witchalls was attacked by a stranger in her home village in Surrey, leaving her permanently severely disabled, told a similar story of relentless intrusion and inaccurate or fabricated stories (particularly when the family refused to provide the Press with material), but as in 1992, despite a new corporate self-regulation body being set up, the state of the Press has not improved. It’s worth noting that the Daily Mail opined on its front page on Saturday that Jill Saward should have been given an honour, and that paper was sympathetic to her, but Hollins named them as the worst offender in the intrusion against her family. (Members of Jill’s family wrote two blog pieces on the press intrusion they suffered in the last week: here and here.)

She took a rather more reactionary turn during the “war on terror”, when she stood in the 2008 Haltemprice and Howden by-election on an explictly anti-civil liberties, “nothing to hide, nothing to fear” platform. The by-election was triggered by the resignation of David Davis (a long-time Tory outsider, though now secretary of state for leaving the EU) as a protest against the erosions of civil liberties represented by the Counter-Terrorism Bill, which extended the period of detention for people arrested on suspicion of terrorism to 42 days. (Extended periods of arrest had been a factor in previous miscarriages of justice; it gives the police time to pressure confessions out of arrestees, for example.)

I wrote about Saward’s position (and her earlier remarks about rape victims of lesser virtue than her own, which outraged feminists in the late 1990s) in an entry in 2008. She was interviewed by Julie Bindel and I quoted these two paragraphs:

Isn’t she worried that she’s deflecting debate from the important issue of detention? “I know that some people who support Davis’s stance on the 42-day issue will criticise me, but the reality is that terrorists are using increasingly clever methods to escape detention, and the investigation into these crimes are always complex. If the police say they need more time to work on these cases, then I support them. I want to be safe from terrorism.”

And what about the effect of the 42-day change on the Asian community? “It will target people who are seen to be a threat to our nation’s freedom. At the moment, that might be some Muslim men, 10 years ago it was the IRA - so people with Irish accents were the target - and soon it could be Mugabe’s men.” In this case, her sympathies tend towards victims of terror attacks and those who enforce the law, rather than potential victims of the detention policy.

42-day detention was not the only civil liberties issue affecting Muslims at that time; control orders (seemingly copied from the “banning orders” of Apartheid-era South Africa) and internment of foreign suspects (then extended to British citizens when reserving them for foreign nationals was ruled discriminatory and thus unlawful), often on the basis of mere association or dubious ‘intelligence’ from Arab governments, were also in force and although those directly affected were all men, as far as I remember, their families — women, children and men — were left to deal with the hardships they caused, visiting them in prison and dealing with the restrictions placed on their lives, such as curfews, seizure of assets, restrictions on who they could have at their house and on their Internet access, which was increasingly necessary for schoolwork. I concluded:

Her stance is a selfish one, buttressed by a spurious “victim’s licence”; perhaps she really expects a constituency of people like her - provincial, middle-class whites, unlikely to be caught up in the “war on terror” - to kick out a long-standing MP for her, at a time when the Tories are in the ascendant. It would be interesting to see if they fall for it.

In the event, Davis comfortably won with 71.6% of the vote; Saward came sixth, polling only 492 votes (2.1%); Labour and the Lib Dems did not stand, the Greens came second with 7.4% of the vote, and the English Democrats and National Front were behind them. (She was still peddling myths about short skirts and rape as recently as that, as the interview with Julie Bindel demonstrates.)

In recent years, she had begun a campaign with feminist Alison Boydell to educate potential jurors about common myths about rape and was involved in fundraising for research into Ehlers-Danlos syndrome ([1], [2]), which she had been diagnosed with in 2012. She had written a book about the rape (which appears to be out of print, but there are second-hand copies on Amazon — note that the music that link brings up is by a different Jill Saward), and was working on a follow-up at the time of her death.

In short, Jill Saward was a hero of mine when I was a teenager but became somewhat tarnished by reactionary stances on matters of importance to me and my fellow Muslims later on. However rare false accusations of rape are, false accusations of terrorism have blighted many lives during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and I do not favour giving the police ammunition to blight more during the “war on terror” (during which the threat to life and limb in this country has proven to be much less serious) when they, not ordinary people, are the main source of them. She supported these policies because they would not affect her; there are many women, including some rape victims no doubt, who didn’t have the privilege of being able to trust the police and security forces as readily as Jill Saward did.

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