Another week, another arrest for alleged sexual abuse hits the headlines. Deputy Commons Speaker Nigel Evans was arrested at the weekend on suspicion of raping one man and sexually assaulting another between July 2009 and March 2013, accusations Evans describes as “completely false”.
With the accompanying media flurry, a reputation can be ruined. It is horrifying to see the speed at which a name and a life can be torn apart. There is a parade of people to whom this problem now applies, who await the investigation of allegations and possibly a trial where they may – or may not – be found guilty.
The actor Bill Roache has been charged with two counts of rape. TV presenter Stuart Hall has admitted indecently assaulting 13 girls, one of whom was just nine at the time. Rolf Harris, Max Clifford, and Freddie Starr have all been arrested by police under Operation Yewtree, launched to investigate alleged sexual offences which came to light in the wake of the Jimmy Savile scandal. If they are found guilty they should be held accountable, but we have not yet – other than in the case of Stuart Hall – reached that stage.
It has become horribly clear that by simply naming someone in the newspapers in connection with an arrest, a once-respectable life can be destroyed in seconds. Even if that someone is cleared, an arrest leaves a stain for a long time afterwards. It is a predicament that many found not guilty have faced.
We must pause for reflection. A quick glance over the recent past should remind us of how the life of Red Dwarf actor Craig Charles was devastated after a rape accusation. He was arrested but denied bail, and spent several months on remand.
When he was finally acquitted after a trial, he stated: “The fact that my name and address along with my picture can appear on the front of the papers before the so-called ‘victim’ has even signed a statement proves that anonymity for rape defendants is a must and that the law must be changed.”
John Leslie, the TV and radio presenter, has spoken of how a false rape claim ruined his career and left him suicidal. He still doesn’t know how to explain to his daughter what happened.
I therefore understand the demands for anonymity; the suggestion that the police should not name the person they have arrested, that a name should only be revealed when a person is charged.
Currently what happens varies from police force to police force, but a ComRes poll commissioned by the Independent newspaper last week found strong public support for changing the law to give anonymity to the arrested, an idea that has support in many quarters. Lord Justice Leveson has said that arrested suspects should not be named “save in exceptional and clearly identified circumstances”.
But whilst I am sympathetic to the problem, concealment is never the solution in such matters. There is an important principle at stake here. When it comes to criminal justice, it is vital that the public know what is happening, who is being prosecuted in our name – and that these cases, where so much is at stake, are not conducted without our scrutiny.
One of the reasons for this is to protect the interests of those who are arrested. When someone’s freedom is threatened, we need to know and to know why. It is one way to ensure that there is enough evidence to warrant such action. Conducting these affairs behind closed doors prevents important questions – that are in the interests of the accused – from being asked. There are few advantages to a secret state.
And when someone does commit a crime, we should know so others could come forward with evidence, as has happened with Stuart Hall. Equally – a fact somewhat forgotten in the current furore – others may come forward to exonerate them. Either way, justice can only be seen to be done if it is the public eye, otherwise it is not credible or accountable.
At the moment, however, those accused of sexual offences are at a disadvantage because their accuser is anonymous, in that their name cannot be published in the media. Although the accused are named publicly in rape trials, complainants automatically receive anonymity for life. This is flawed. The idea and practice of equality before the law is vital, but it is not applied in these cases. Open justice is not open if only one of the parties is named.
Granted, extending anonymity to both parties would ensure equality, and some argue that this would be the best course of action, that no-one should know the names of either the accused or the complainant. But whilst it would make things equal to withhold the names of both, this is not a good enough reason to change the law. Although anonymity may appear to benefit both parties, it will benefit no-one to hide what is happening from our view.
In the interests of both equality and openness, there is a strong – if deeply unfashionable – argument that the accuser should also be named. Yes, it would make it difficult to come forward to report a crime. But it should never be easy to do so, no matter how despicable the crime. And yes, there is currently a stigma that means it is hard to go to the police to report alleged sexual offences. But the idea that rape should be treated differently to other crimes, that it is so bad it warrants anonymity for the complainant, probably reinforces that stigma. And I object to the idea that women are so frail that they require special, differential treatment; that they are not capable of bringing people to justice without protection.
The essential point about serious cases tried in our name is that we need to know the details. That means knowing the name of those arrested and those making the accusations. While this is difficult for the accused, and those accusing, when the consequences are so grave for everyone involved, openness is always better than secrecy.