Why we should not sugar-coat rape conviction rates

Consciously deciding to use more favourable statistics, as Baroness Stern suggests, would mask the p

Baroness Stern's long-awaited review of the way rape cases are handled in England and Wales was published today. It criticises an excessive focus on "misleading" conviction rates, and recommends that victim support should be as much a priority as increasing convictions.

Stern said that what victims "felt was really important was not in the end if they could get a conviction. What they said was, 'We still feel we want to be believed.' "

It is certainly true that a victim should not be abandoned by the authorities because police feel that their case is unlikely to lead to a conviction.

However, Stern's comments about conviction rates and -- particularly -- the statistics, could be rather dangerous. This is shown by the Daily Mail's ranting, skewed coverage of the story today. It opens with this:

Harriet Harman was ordered to stop misleading the public about rape by an official inquiry report yesterday.

The Equalities Minister was accused of pumping out unreliable figures about the low number of rapists brought to justice, thus discouraging victims from reporting attacks.

The review by Baroness Stern appeared to put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform because only 6 per cent of complaints end in a conviction.

While this implies that the real story is Harriet Harman spearheading a plot to mislead the public, it boils down to a dispute about which statistics should be used. The oft-cited figure (supposedly "misleading"), is that just 6 per cent of reported rape cases end with a conviction for rape.

Stern suggests that instead, we should look at the number of reported cases that end in a conviction not just for rape, but for other related crimes, which is 14 per cent. She adds that 58 per cent of those cases that get to court result in a conviction.

 

"Foul play" favours rapists

It is a complex matter. On the one hand, Stern's argument, that quoting the shockingly low 6 per cent conviction rate figure will deter people from reporting the crime, contains an element of sense. On the other hand, is it not more "misleading" to give victims an inaccurate picture of what they will be up against?

Yes, a conviction for a related crime is something, but it is not what many women (or men) are looking for. Moreover, the 58 per cent figure relates only to the small number of cases that actually make it to court.

"What she's proposing is to cover up what's happening in the criminal justice system just at the time when women are finally getting the truth out," Ruth Hall of Women Against Rape told the Guardian. I'm inclined to agree.

The unpleasant language of the Daily Mail article suggests that this report has finally laid to rest the Big Rape Conspiracy, proving once and for all that we don't need to interrogate and improve the way in which the justice system deals with rape.

Just reread that last sentence, which says that the review has "put an end to years of claims by ministers that laws and criminal procedures for dealing with rape need radical reform". This sense of foul play is enforced by a clipping that accompanies the online version of the piece, criticising Harman's "single-minded pursuit of an equality agenda", as though we can safely discredit the argument that there are serious problems with our attitudes to rape.

It has been slow, but there have been improvements in the way that rape is handled. The 6 per cent figure is shocking, but it is shocking because it is true. To sugar-coat it at this juncture would be to risk taking many steps backward.

Follow the New Statesman team on Twitter.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

John Moore
Show Hide image

The man who created the fake Tube sign explains why he did it

"We need to consider the fact that fake news isn't always fake news at the source," says John Moore.

"I wrote that at 8 o'clock on the evening and before midday the next day it had been read out in the Houses of Parliament."

John Moore, a 44-year-old doctor from Windsor, is describing the whirlwind process by which his social media response to Wednesday's Westminster attack became national news.

Moore used a Tube-sign generator on the evening after the attack to create a sign on a TfL Service Announcement board that read: "All terrorists are politely reminded that THIS IS LONDON and whatever you do to us we will drink tea and jolly well carry on thank you." Within three hours, it had just fifty shares. By the morning, it had accumulated 200. Yet by the afternoon, over 30,000 people had shared Moore's post, which was then read aloud on BBC Radio 4 and called a "wonderful tribute" by prime minister Theresa May, who at the time believed it was a genuine Underground sign. 

"I think you have to be very mindful of how powerful the internet is," says Moore, whose viral post was quickly debunked by social media users and then national newspapers such as the Guardian and the Sun. On Thursday, the online world split into two camps: those spreading the word that the sign was "fake news" and urging people not to share it, and those who said that it didn't matter that it was fake - the sentiment was what was important. 

Moore agrees with the latter camp. "I never claimed it was a real tube sign, I never claimed that at all," he says. "In my opinion the only fake news about that sign is that it has been reported as fake news. It was literally just how I was feeling at the time."

Moore was motivated to create and post the sign when he was struck by the "very British response" to the Westminster attack. "There was no sort of knee-jerk Islamaphobia, there was no dramatisation, it was all pretty much, I thought, very calm reporting," he says. "So my initial thought at the time was just a bit of pride in how London had reacted really." Though he saw other, real Tube signs online, he wanted to create his own in order to create a tribute that specifically epitomised the "very London" response. 

Yet though Moore insists he never claimed the sign was real, his caption on the image - which now has 100,800 shares - is arguably misleading. "Quintessentially British..." Moore wrote on his Facebook post, and agrees now that this was ambiguous. "It was meant to relate to the reaction that I saw in London in that day which I just thought was very calm and measured. What the sign was trying to do was capture the spirit I'd seen, so that's what I was actually talking about."

Not only did Moore not mean to mislead, he is actually shocked that anyone thought the sign was real. 

"I'm reasonably digitally savvy and I was extremely shocked that anyone thought it was real," he says, explaining that he thought everyone would be able to spot a fake after a "You ain't no muslim bruv" sign went viral after the Leytonstone Tube attack in 2015. "I thought this is an internet meme that people know isn't true and it's fine to do because this is a digital thing in a digital world."

Yet despite his intentions, Moore's sign has become the centre of debate about whether "nice" fake news is as problematic as that which was notoriously spread during the 2016 United States Presidential elections. Though Moore can understand this perspective, he ultimately feels as though the sentiment behind the sign makes it acceptable. 

"I use the word fake in inverted commas because I think fake implies the intention to deceive and there wasn't [any]... I think if the sentiment is ok then I think it is ok. I think if you were trying to be divisive and you were trying to stir up controversy or influence people's behaviour then perhaps I wouldn't have chosen that forum but I think when you're only expressing your own emotion, I think it's ok.

"The fact that it became so-called fake news was down to other people's interpretation and not down to the actual intention... So in many interesting ways you can see that fake news doesn't even have to originate from the source of the news."

Though Moore was initially "extremely shocked" at the reponse to his post, he says that on reflection he is "pretty proud". 

"I'm glad that other people, even the powers that be, found it an appropriate phrase to use," he says. "I also think social media is often denigrated as a source of evil and bad things in the world, but on occasion I think it can be used for very positive things. I think the vast majority of people who shared my post and liked my post have actually found the phrase and the sentiment useful to them, so I think we have to give social media a fair judgement at times and respect the fact it can be a source for good."

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.