The Coronation Street actor William Roache has recently been cleared of rape charges after the woman making the claims was shown to lack credible evidence for her case. Former BBC DJ Dave Lee Travis was also recently cleared of indecently assaulting 12 young women. There was likewise a lack of evidence in order to find the defendant guilty. Both of these false accusations of rape and sexual assault seem to stem from a post-Jimmy Savile witch-hunt in which many women claimed that Roache and Travis used their fame and celebrity status to sexually assault them. Their claims turned out to be unfounded and were probably made so that they could sell the story to the press.
Just as the accuser is granted anonymity in cases of sexual assault and rape, it would also be wise to grant anonymity to the accused. This is even more crucial in high profile cases such as the Roache and Travis case. The high profile of these celebrities meant that their sex offence cases resulted in a disproportionate amount of shame and humiliation, not just for the accused, but for their families as well. As soon as you’re accused of being a sexual offender or a rapist, you can pretty much wave goodbye to your reputation. The situation is much worse for celebrities where these allegations are heavily covered by the press for all the public to see.
Of course, this does not mean that celebrities should receive special treatment. Instead, those accused of sex offences should be granted anonymity on the legal basis that they are innocent until proven guilty. If anonymity is granted to the accuser for their protection, shouldn’t the accused also receive the same protection? After all, the accused is still innocent until a fair trial finds that they are guilty – the presumption of innocence is guaranteed by Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Critics of this argument, such as Sarah Green (campaigns manager at End Violence Against Women), reply that the damage done to the victim far outweighs the stigma associated with a false rape allegation. This may be true. We should also keep in mind that the majority of rape accusations are not false and that many rapes go unreported because the victim is afraid that their case will not be taken seriously. Green argues that the names of the accused need to be released for investigative reasons, to appeal for witnesses and to encourage other victims to come forward. It has been argued that if sex offenders such as Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall were never named then many of the victims would not have come forward.
Another rebuttal to the position that the accused remain anonymous is a slippery slope argument. If those accused of rape can be granted anonymity, why shouldn’t those accused of murder or theft? Is the stigma of murder not just as negative as the stigma of rape? Indeed, there are many false accusations of murder, resulting in many people having their reputation ruined or unjustly serving life sentences until new evidence or testimony proves them innocent. For the sake of consistency, then, do we really want to grant anonymity to those accused of murder as well? Well, perhaps. As soon as you’re accused of murder, rape, sexual assault or child molestation – even if you’re not proved to be guilty in the courts – that label will still remain with you throughout your life, especially if it was printed in newspapers next to a picture of yourself. However, we should keep in mind that this is a slippery slope argument. Rape, sexual assault and child molestation are considered particularly vile crimes and granting the accused anonymity in these cases does not necessarily lead to granting anonymity to those accused of murder, theft, drunk driving, assault and other crimes.
Moreover, rape is a very different kind of crime from other crimes, since the accuser is granted anonymity (unlike in murder) and there are often no witnesses; so it usually comes down to one word against another. Cases of rape are even trickier than cases of murder because it is difficult to ascertain whether the sexual act was consensual or not. If you get shot, on the other hand, it most likely wasn’t consensual.
As mentioned before, false rape allegations are rare, so an attempt to grant the accused anonymity may be viewed as protecting a small minority of men instead of protecting female victims. The idea that loads of women are accusing men of rape for jealousy, revenge, financial reasons or some other ulterior motive is a sexist myth. However, there is no reason why granting the accused anonymity must be at the expense of the victim. If naming the accused does in fact encourage other victims to come forward, which the Jimmy Savile and Stuart Hall cases indicated, then the accused should be named and blamed – but only if they have been found guilty. Stephen Cooper, who founded the site falselyaccused.co.uk, maintains that prior to conviction, both the accuser and the accused should possess the equal right to anonymity. Giving anonymity to one and not the other is simply unfair.
Female victims of rape should not feel that their case will not be taken seriously. It is a myth that rape has a low conviction rate compared to other crimes. Many have argued that the conviction rate is around 7% – a shockingly low figure – but that it is not really accurate. The conviction rate is in fact 58%, while the conviction rate for all reported crimes is 59%. Hardly a discrepancy there. Victims should therefore not be put off by reporting crimes against them. Any difficulty in convicting a potential rapist does not come from a bias against women, where they are blamed for being the victim. Instead, the difficulty comes from the complexity of the case, where it is literally one word against another. There is usually no CCTV footage to shed any light on the situation.
We must not forget how horrific rape is for a victim; not just in terms of the act itself but for its lasting consequences as well. But we also cannot ignore how damaging false accusations can be, no matter how rare they are. The criminal justice system should always work to protect the innocent. And according to Stephen Cooper, he has personally seen 141 innocent people over 25 years falsely accused of sexual offences for malicious reasons. These are people whose names were released before trial and whose lives may have been ruined as a result; involving losing their job, friends, family and respect. The accused may also receive death threats or threats of violence.
The current situation where only the accuser can remain anonymous is unequal and a form of sexual discrimination. The principle of innocent until proven guilty is lost when high profile celebrities have crimes such as rape and sexual assault associated with their name before they’ve even been found guilty. If the rapist is found guilty, then it should be made public knowledge and the press would be justified in reporting about it. Even if we don’t grant anonymity to the accused, at the very least their personal information should not be made publicly available so that the media can profit from selling the story.
Dave Lee Travis is currently facing a re-trial for the remaining two sex offence charges; one of indecent assault and one of sexual assault. After being cleared of the other 12 counts, he commented that he had been through “a year and a half of hell”. He said the case had cost him his reputation, as well as so much money that he had to sell his house. The “nightmare” – as he describes it – continues.