Over the past few days, two different male writers on my radar have run against the rocks on the issue of false allegations.
The first was “Prisoner Ben” Gunn. I really value this blogger. He brings an irreverent and sharp mind to issues of criminology and penal policy, informed by extensive study and 32 years of imprisonment, from the age of 14 until last year. He was nominated for an Orwell Prize while blogging from behind bars, and has continued since his release. That gives him a rare and valuable perspective. He campaigns and writes, often brilliantly, about issues of judicial reform and miscarriages of justice. More power to his elbow.
Last week Ben Gunn took issue with the Twitter hashtag #ibelieveher, which sprang into life in response to the grotesque shaming, blaming and online outing of the victim of convicted rapist and footballer Ched Evans. As he later wrote on his blog:
It began when I saw a campaign headed “I believe her”, propagating the view that all rape victims should be believed. I assumed even the dimmest or most ideological could glimpse the flaw in that idea – sometimes an accusation is false. To simply “believe” is to throw out the justice process, essentially renders the trial process pointless. Thought everyone would appreciate my concern…. Well. They didn’t.
I understand what he was driving at, but also understand why others didn’t see it that way. What Ben misses, I think, is that the single biggest obstacle to justice and personal recovery for rape victims is excessive disbelief. It is disbelief that sees too many reported rapes being “no-crimed” by police or inadequately investigated. It is disbelief that sees rape victims being branded liars or sluts by internet vigilantes, and it is the fear of disbelief that deters many victims from reporting the crime in the first place. If we genuinely want rapists to be convicted for their crimes, saying “I believe her” (or for that matter “I believe him” in around 10% of reported rapes) has to be the default starting position for police, media reporters and social media commentators alike.
This does not imply that belief trumps evidence. I don’t think anyone is suggesting we “throw out the judicial process.” Nobody is suggesting police, prosecutors and juries abandon the collection and analysis of evidence and testimony, or the requirement that someone be proved guilty beyond all reasonable doubt. The moral payback, I believe, is that when allegations have been properly investigated and there is no proof that an individual is guilty of the offence, that person is held unequivocally to be innocent, without a stain on (usually) his character.
It is blunt truth that in the real world many rapes happen without witnesses or physical evidence of non-consent. Many rapes will always go unpunished. Many others will be lost in a mist of uncertainty, with insufficient evidence of guilt or innocence to proceed. Then in a small proportion of cases, there is actual evidence of fabrication and falsehood by the alleged victim, sufficient to warrant prosecution for perverting the course of justice or just wasting police time. This leads us to this week’s second unhelpful contribution to the debate.
The Daily Mail’s resident men’s issues correspondent, Peter Lloyd, is angry. He’s angry that false accuser Lindsey Attridge was spared a jail sentence after fabricating allegations against two men. He’s also angry that feminists and women’s charities aren’t stepping up to loudly condemn false accusers for their wicked deeds and for undermining the credibility of rape victims.
There is a lot in the article I’m unhappy with, but first let me deal with an absolute travesty of a claim. I’d like to think it is down to careless wording rather than either ignorance or mendacity, but on an issue of such importance and sensitivity, there is no excuse even for that. Let me quote the paragraph in full:
In 2010, an official enquiry report led by Baroness Stern – a prison reform campaigner – ordered [Harriet] Harman to stop misleading the public about rape statistics. For years she’d been pumping misinformation that only six per cent of rapists are brought to justice, when the reality is actually very different.
Actually, the rate is more like two in three – a figure which is much higher than comparable numbers for other violent crimes. Yet still we are told that only 4 per cent of rape attacks go to court.
For anyone unfamiliar with the statistics, there are several different figures at play. Stern rebuked Harman for not distinguishing between the conviction rate for rape (the proportion of cases heard in court resulting in guilty verdicts – about 60%) with the attrition rate (the proportions of reported rapes which withstand the full process of report, investigation and prosecution to result in a guilty verdict – about 6% in Harman’s day, slightly higher now.) Both statistics are meaningful and useful, although Stern was right to demand that they be used with clarity and accuracy. Neither tells us what proportion of rapists are brought to justice.
We know that the vast majority of rapes are not reported and so the vast majority of rapists will never even face the possibility of prosecution. The British Crime Survey gives an approximate estimate of 85,000 rapes happening last year. There were around 2,400 guilty verdicts, or roughly one conviction for every 35 rapes that occur, one conviction for every 14 rapes reported to police, and three convictions for every five cases brought to court. All of those statistics are true and compatible. To suggest that two thirds of rapists are “brought to justice” is dangerously misleading and frighteningly ignorant. For good measure, it also implies that the 40% of defendants cleared in court are unconvicted rapists, a disturbing assertion.
If what Peter Lloyd said was bad enough, perhaps worse is what he didn’t say. At no point did he reveal to readers that the five cases he found of convicted false accusers walking free from court are atypical. Many women convicted of making false allegations are jailed, often for long terms – his paper takes great delight in reporting them every couple of weeks. Nor does he provide any context as to the prevalence of false allegations in comparison to prevalence of rapes.
It is genuinely impossible for anyone to say for sure how many false allegations occur. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is not even consensus on what we actually mean by a false allegation. We do know that in 17 months, the CPS considered only 132 cases for prosecution, which equates to about 0.6% of reports. These could be considered a bare minimum. There must be more allegations which are false but not provably so. About the only thing we can say with certainty about false allegations is that they do sometimes occur. Anything more specific than that is a statement of faith, not evidence.
However by the same system we can note that if the Daily Mail recorded and reported proven, convicted rapes with the same zeal and efficiency they afford to false accusers, they would report 200 new cases every month, that’s seven pages of their paper every single day of the year. Peter Lloyd’s article was especially problematic in the context of his paper, which pursues an editorial policy that creates a vastly skewed impression of the prevalence of known cases of false rape allegations in comparison to actual rapes, and therefore greatly inflates public perception of the likelihood that a rape allegation might be false, and the risk to (primarily) men of being the victim of a false allegation.
I’ll confess that it does frustrate me that many commentators and rape campaigners seem to refuse to engage with the existence of false allegations or suggest that they are so rare they are not worth considering. The possibility that an allegation may be false is a hugely important factor in the prosecution equation and can’t be ignored as an inconvenience. I also wish some feminists would refrain from suggesting that being falsely accused is no big deal, when it is often devastating for those affected. Making a malicious false allegation is a horrible crime, and no one should be reluctant to say so. This debate desperately requires nuance and balance, but is often marked by factional polarisation.
To return to our starting point, rape victims require belief. That belief is certainly undermined by proven cases of false allegations, but it is also undermined by heavily skewed public impressions of the extent and nature of the problem. To complain about the former while actively contributing to the latter would seem to be disingenuous to say the least.