Monday, 12 November 2012
In between trying to keep up with BBC resignations and writing obituries for Newsnight, the frenzy around recent revelations about child sex abuse in the UK has also centred a lot of attention on anonymity.
The role of anonymity in sex crimes cases has always been a red button issue. Victims and alleged victims of sexual crimes are guaranteed anonymity under law in the UK. They cannot in any circumstance, not even under parliamentary privilege Lord Campbell Savours, be named in public. This is in fact a criminal offence, punishable by a fine, as seen last week by the case of 9 people who named the victim of Ched Evans. This anonymity is extended to victims of historic abuse and child sex abuse no matter at what age they report or speak out.
Currently there is no guaranteed right of anonymity for those accused of sexual crimes. This was in fact abolished by the Tory government in 1988. It used to extend to everyone accused no matter what age the victim was. I've blogged before about the current government's aborted idea to reintroduce anonymity for those accused of rape against adult victims and while I still acknowledge there are big flaws with that proposal, I remain generally convinced that while emotions are so high and the system so poor, anonymity for accused but unconvicted sex offenders should be considered again.
I'm afraid I just don't buy the line that if we kept people's names anonymous before conviction it would affect the rate of conviction because other victims couldn't come forward. Well, I don't know if you've noticed, but the conviction rate is pretty piss poor under the system we've got right now. Even in cases where multiple victims come forward with identical allegations, they get ignored and nothing gets done. The John Worboys case did not get the conviction it did because the police allowed his name to be put forward. It didn't even get to court because of the number of victims involved. It got to court (as did Kirk Reid) because one officer pieced together several allegations over several years and because the Met held an internal investigation into the entire Sapphire Unit based around six cases and it became apparent that there was so much evidence against Worboys and Reid that the CPS couldn't not prosecute. But here's the thing, all that evidence was already there. It just hadn't been taken seriously until the Met was forced to investigate itself.
Both men were convicted with a clear jury majority and very little deliberation and sentenced to comparatively long sentences for their crimes. Only then did the police release their names to the public and appeal for further victims to come forward. They and the courts had used the current rules to suppress the name through reporting restrictions prior to conviction (basically to cover the Met's arse so their failings didn't come out in such an obvious way.) Countless more women came forward as victims of both men. No futher court cases have ever happened. But somewhere along the line, the Worboys case has passed in folklore as the example of how anonymity for the accused prevents convictions. The Met trot it out a lot, but then again, they're desperate to make themselves look good over Sapphire in any way. But annoyingly I see many feminists parrot the same line unquestioningly. I think I remember the whole PR episode slightly differently over both trials as my case was one of the six and I spent time dealing with both the Met and the press over that time. Not once did the Met mention either name even in private meetings with me about the issue nor did any of journalists who contacted me wanting a victim's perspective about police failings. In fact I was specifically asked by several journalists on both cases about the fact the names had been withheld until conviction.
I'm not going to re-hash the stuff from the previous post as I think I made myself clear, but I've had new concerns about anonymity since then. The Savile scandal broke because Karin Ward was brave enough to come forward to Newsnight and speak out while waiving her anonymity. I applaud her for a decision of unbelievable bravery. But I also have a worrying feeling about the precedent it set in the media and the public's perception (none of which is Karin's fault.) It transpired that there had been constant suspicion and accusation against Savile for nigh on forty years. But it wasn't really taken seriously until someone spoke out fully identifiably, creating an idea that unless a victim is prepared to waive anonymity, their allegation isn't worth listening to. It's raised the stakes. It's now not enough speak up, recount painful, traumatic and desperately personal details, fight your own corner with the police and CPS and in some cases, submit every single centimetre of your body to forensic examination; now you need to declare your identity to all as well.
Well, some of you might say, if you're going to accuse someone of a terrible crime, you should be prepared to face them and them know who accused them. But that misses the point. Anonymity only refers to public anonymity. The police, the CPS, his defence team, the judge will all know who you are. The fact they take pains to prevent that information being easily ascertained in court documents or to the public gallery doesn't prevent you as a victim having your entire life picked over to persue a court case or your attacker not knowing who brought the case against them (because it's the Crown that brings the case. Not the victim. They simply become a witness to the case.) All I see that comes out of waiving anonymity as a pre-requisite of an allegation being taken seriously is that allows more opportunity to measure that survivor by the arbitrary rules of the 'perfect victim' and since they are humans, not textbook examples, find them failing. This allows society to be more likely to see victims as liars because they aren't matching the preconceptions people have and become hostile to them.
And not just that, I think it actually does the opposite to what the people who are so worried about false allegations and people's reputations being needlessly ruined want. It adds a gossipy salaciousness that actually encourages trial by media and public instead of considered trial by evidence. Look at the feeding frenzy over Savile where the tabloids and gossip magazines have chased up every celebrity woman Savile ever worked with and shown endless clips of him making Coleen Nolan look like she wants to be sick as he manhandles her. It doesn't actually validate the victims' abuse, but turns it into a spectator sport ripe for comparison to everyone else's life. It actually minimises the experience and bravery of survivors to do this because obviously no footage exists of the rapes and more serious sexual assaults, so people see Savile paw young women on primetime telly and think that's all there was to it. Cue loads of people recounting the time some creepy old bastard felt their arse and you didn't see them running the papers or police, looking for money.
Oh yes, money. People who have never been sexually assaulted by someone rich, famous and powerful seem to think it's akin to a good tip on the gee-gees and a surefire way to get some cash. It never occurs to them that the majority of victims speak out because they are trying to defend themselves, seek justice and be heard after assault has rendered them invisible. They think they just want a pay out and it's all about greed because being attacked by a well known person is actually a blessing, not an incredibly traumatising and isolating experience. They have no idea that it's actually incredibly difficult to get compensation for sexual crimes as you must fit very exacting criteria, including not allowing the police to 'no crime' an allegation, the attacker not be dead and that victims of child sex abuse who 'consented' are already excluded from the criminal compensation criteria. They could of course persue a private case for compensation from their attacker or their estate, but legal aid for such cases have been withdrawn so they would have to pay their own costs upfront for a case that might rumble on for years and that has no guarantee of success and could leave them bankrupt as well as traumatised. As ways to get rich go, it's about as failsafe as a trip to Ladbrokes, but you don't get free tea or coffee.
And if you do get awarded any form of compensation, you will have your character further assassinated and see even more gossipy interest in the person who attacked you. Sunday's hatchet job by the Mail on Stephen Messham mainly seems to focus on the fact he was compensated for the systemic abuse he suffered as a child. Put bluntly, where there's a payout, there's guilt. No one pays out thousands of pounds to someone who alleged sexual abuse unless something happened. So when Messham spoke out about a senior Tory abusing him, everyone knew there was a story. Newsnight knew who Messham was (obviously) and because he'd spoken out before using his identity, they could build a report and a backstory without even checking things with him. His payout was their guarantee he'd be taken seriously when they broadcast the piece as it showed legitimacy as a victim. It's also the very thing that the Mail and David Mellor and others have used to slam Messham now that it has come out that he misidentified the Lord in question.
Declaring his identity and refusing to be shamed by being a victim has been used as a tug of war over Messham with both camps pulling and pushing and leading to an appalling situation where the victim has had to apologise and everyone else escapes blame and navel gazes. Newsnight knew fine rightly that the teaser of an identifiable victim, a political connection and society's need to look like it was being tough on abuse would lead to people naming names without proof. And they did in droves. Some did it because they genuinely thought they were protecting potential victims, others did it because their desire for gossip and political point scoring was greater than the desire for justice, some wanted to bait the PM and get good ratings. But the name of a man who did not abuse children got put out there and burned down the Bush Telegraph of the internet.
Everyone should have known better. They prejudiced any potential trial, they showed themselves to be shallow and not really concerned with the victims, they slandered the accused's name and they destroyed the reputation of the abuse victim. It was a perfect storm of supposition, presumed certainty and intrigue and in my opinion, none of it would have happened if Stephen Messham hadn't been identified so clearly. I don't know if he wanted to be identified for personal reasons and I respect him if he was willing to do that, but what I object to is Newsnight allowing him to do that without checking the details properly because what they did was make him the face that people associated with the scandal so when it went tits up, no one had an image and a name in their mind for the editor of Newsnight. Entwhistle might have gone over it, but it's Messham people are writing personal pieces about it that dredge up his life, family history and reputation. No one's asking if the middle class Newsnight editor involved might have become an attention seeker because his parents sent him to piano lessons at 8.
Newsnight had a duty of care to a traumatised man with a history of serious psychiatric problems and they fucked up completely. I am not suggesting that survivors are fragile little flowers who should be treated as damaged goods who cannot have opinions and speak for themselves, but I am suggesting that the media doesn't just run for short term ratings and hang a victim out to dry to get them. They should talk through the potential consequences and offer support if the survivor still decides to speak out with anonymity. But that's not happening. I've done a lot of press over the years about my rapes in various guises and still do if I feel it is helpful. It used to be very very rare to be asked to waive anonymity, but it has become increasingly standard. Just last Thursday I was asked (indirectly, not just me) through the women's org I volunteer for to speak to Glamour magazine, but only if I agreed to be photographed and identified. Cosmopolitan and Grazia do the same. Personally I don't think the organisation should be asking their clients to do this even if it guarantees publicity and funds for the scheme and I declined, stating that fact. If a survivor wants to speak out using their identity, then I'm not going to stop them or criticise them, but I'm going to speak up about the press blackmailing us by only covering sexual violence if anonymity is waived.
That makes me hugely uncomfortable. It plays into many rape myths and the idea of the 'perfect victim' in a very unhelpful way. Women's magazines will only feature the 'right' person: pretty, thin, white, middle class, probably had a conviction in their case or an 'acceptable' type of rape such a stranger/stalker rape. Not for the glossies will women who might fat, trans*, gay or bi, sexually active outside a relationship, working class, drink alcohol, take drugs or have been groomed be rape victims. Men will continue be invisible as victims and women will continue to minimise their experiences as 'not real rape' and so not seek justice and blame themselves not their attacker. The fact that 80% of victims know their attacker will be ignored and we'll continue to be asked to change our behaviour, not tackle rape culture and patriarchy. Cosmo will carry on printing 'good news' rape stories even though they seem to have relaxed their policy on only featuring victims who aren't single because to them rape isn't the tragedy, it's the fact you might end up single because of it. Much easier to push the idea that the thing to help you overcome the actions of a man attacking you is to find the love of a good man rather than seek to campaign for justice and resources, speak up about the culture that silences victims and allow women especially to support each other.
You, in this day and age of the internet when all prospective employers and partners Google you, are asked to permanently link your name to the crime committed against you so that a magazine or TV show gets its prize and moves on. It's actually long term victimisation that never allows survivors to move on and rebuild their lives. It's condemning them to be 'damaged goods' and feels like punishing them for speaking out like seems to have happened to Dominique Strauss Kahn's victim in New York. And it's not strictly neccesary to get the message out. I have successfully spoken out widely and never revealed my identity. 99% of media (print, radio and TV) have been very happy for me to use my alter ego Helen Jones and never asked me to reveal the real me. In fact I considered doing so over my compensation and the BBC journalist refused to take the case if I did. My family also asked me not to since we have such an obvious name and my solicitor advised me not to. Plenty of people do know who I am and yet they've never exposed me or accidentally revealed me and in hindsight, I'm glad I didn't expose my identity when actively campaigning. But when I was utterly possessed by the need to be taken seriously and heard by someone because the police had let me down so much, I could very easily have thought that it was the magic bullet to declare my identity and done so, only to have been left to deal with the consequences by myself for years to come. The media can be very persuasive and I'm concerned they sell a scenario to trusting and desperate people who think the reporter really really cares because they've spent hours listening to your story and I think anyone who waives anonymity should have some support and advocacy when doing so.
But the media also has a role to play and that role is to stop putting pressure on survivors and seeing them only as the means to an end. I'd like it if we could expand the discourse on sexual violence and get people talking about it more, but ultimately I think in this case it would be better to have less said in the media, but much better than risk repeating the truly cavalier attitudes of recent weeks that have put survivors under unbearable pressure, threatened innocent people's reputations, made it easier for guilty parties to hide in the shadows and made it more overwhelming and difficult to report rape of any sort. I'm not suggesting anonymity for both parties would solve all the problems of this rape culture and everything will be glitter and kittens in comparison, but the situation isn't working right now and no one in the media, let alone Leveson, is addressing it any other way so I'm not sure what else can be done that makes an immediate difference?