Keir Starmer's report on rape allegations tells us more about their nature than their number

The CPS review of false rape allegations doesn't offer any clear answers.

 

The Director of Public Prosecution, Keir Starmer, is understandably keen to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes which are associated with rape cases. “One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife," he says.

It is probably true that the prevalence of such cases is often overestimated. Most credible research places false allegations at between about two and ten per cent of all complaints, the difference between a small minority and a tiny minority. However, the new review does not, and indeed cannot contribute any kind of estimate of the extent of false allegations, its methodology does not allow it.        

The CPS research reviewed 132 suspected false rape allegations where the evidence of fabrication was strong enough to require a decision on pressing charges, either for perverting the course of justice or wasting police time. (There were also 27 cases relating to non-sexual domestic violence - for simplicity, I’m excluding them from this discussion). Only 35 suspected false rape allegations proceeded to court. The 132 cases represent less than one per cent of reported rapes.  

Despite headline claims that false allegations are “few and far between,” these are only the cases where the evidence of falsification is strong. There were more than 16,000 reported rapes last year, of which 82 per cent did not go to trial. Proving a rape allegation to be false is no easier than proving one to be true, and for every case where there is enough evidence of fabrication to justify possible prosecution, there must be others where the allegation is false, but there is little or no evidence to prove that. How many such cases might there be? It is impossible to know for sure and this study makes no attempt to find out. Anyone who states confidently what the total number might be is speaking from faith, not evidence.

So the CPS review provides no clean, simple answers about the extent of false rape allegations. It is nonetheless valuable for the light it shines on the gruesome complexities. The case studies do not portray spiteful, malicious characters bent on blackmail or revenge, but a ragged bag of sorry stories. Around half are under 21, many have mental health issues or learning difficulties. False reports from over a third of the younger suspects were made by parents or partners, after a domestic lie spiralled out of control.

The cases echo a messy reality described in a recent paper in the British Journal of Criminology which observed that there is not even consensus on what is meant by a false allegation. Drawing upon interviews with police and prosecutors, Dr Candida Saunders distinguished between reports of rapes which had not occurred (false complaints) and reports of rape which contain falsehoods (false accounts).

False complaints, her interviewees suggested, are actually very rare, but reports which contain falsehoods are described as being common. A typical example might be a complainant who told police that she had only had one or two vodkas before tests revealed her to be eight times over the driving limit. Others lie as to the extent of their prior relationship with the alleged attacker, or the circumstances by which they came to be alone together. Such false accounts do not mean the complainant has not been raped, in most cases the assumption is that s/he has been, but they do damage the credibility of a witness and undermine prospects of successful prosecution. Saunders argues that many presumed false reports may actually be false accounts. If there is to be better understanding of the nature of false allegations among police, prosecutors and the public, this is the area where it should begin.

What do we know for sure about false allegations? Very little, beyond the fact that they do sometimes occur. In a judicial system that requires conviction beyond all reasonable doubt it is almost academic whether the proportion is one in a hundred or one in ten - each case must be judged on its merits. It is important to note that 84 per cent of the cases studied by CPS involved a specific, named individual as the alleged assailant. Each could be expected to suffer great distress as a result, and false allegations can and do destroy lives. The CPS is right, I believe, to ignore pleas from some feminist groups to end all prosecutions for false rape allegations which would leave victims of a serious crime without protection or justice. The CPS is also right to tend against prosecution in all but the most egregious cases, given the complexities and possibilities for miscarriage of justice involved.            

There is another sense in which this debate is academic. Recent IPCC investigations into the Met’s Sapphire Unit revealed an appalling record of incompetence, inadequacy and occasional outright corruption in the investigation of rape complaints, and it would be dangerous to assume this is restricted to London. The significance of false allegations must be marginal when so many reports were barely investigated at all, where evidence wasn’t collected or was actively destroyed. Ensuring that our police forces are willing and able to investigate the cases before them with honesty, competence and commitment would be the best protection for victims of rape and of false allegations alike. 

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions. Photograph: Getty Images
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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