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12 September 2013

Why a rape trial should never be called a ’witch-hunt’

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this term appeared in a trial about rape and sexual assault; it isn’t the first time.

By Rhiannon

In case you hadn’t noticed the news blaring from what felt like every digital surface in the western world, Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell was this week found not guilty of charges relating to child sexual abuse. So far, so normal: the British justice system investigates crime, presents evidence, pronounces a person guilty or not according to the evidence at hand. But, but.

Something very important happened in the summary of the case which had little to do with Le Vell at all. In addressing the jury before their decision, top prosecutor Eleanor Laws QC asked whether the ‘world has gone mad’ over ‘celebrity prosecutions’. She then used the word ‘witch-hunt’ to heavily imply that after Jimmy Savile, the public are baying for the blood of their once beloved TV stars. Chief crown prosecutor for the north west, Nazir Afzal, hit back that he ‘absolutely detest[s] this word witch-hunt.’ And he certainly has reason to.

When people use the word ‘witch-hunt’, they’re obviously not talking black hats and broomsticks. A ‘witch-hunt’ is an unfounded instance of mass hysteria where everyone has got a little bit carried away and started identifying completely fictional bad guys. Witches, after all, don’t exist. People who believe in them are gullible and oversensitive. Meanwhile, everyone who had to suffer through GCSE teaching of The Crucible knows that the first accusers in the Salem witch trials were two deluded, attention-seeking little girls.

Charlie Brooker’s poem ‘Witch Hunt’ effectively satirised the frequency with which the tabloids will cry ‘witch hunt’, while often engaging in the act themselves. Yet, when a spate of prosecutions for murder or grievous bodily harm arise, the term ‘witch-hunt’ is never used. Rebekah Brooks used the term after being charged with phone hacking and another equally charming contributor to the media, Richard Littlejohn at the Daily Mail, used it to refer to both phone hacking investigations AND the Jimmy Savile prosecutions in one article (if there’s one thing to be said for the Mail, it’s that they never waste column space.) In both cases, the word was used in an effort to discredit the alleged victims of a crime, to imply that they were fantasising.

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that this term appeared in a trial about rape and sexual assault; it isn’t the first time. People often jump on their high horse about ‘witch-hunts’ where rape is concerned. According to data gathered by US charity The Enliven Project, only 10% of rapes are ever reported, a minority of these lead to actual prosecutions, and 2% of rape allegations are false. The Independent put this into UK numbers, showing 95,000 rape victims per year; 15,670 of these rapes reported to police; 2,910 cases reaching the courts; and 1070 rapists eventually being convicted.

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You don’t have to have a Masters in Criminology to know that rape is widely unreported and under-convicted. One of the reasons that the situation stands is because people like Eleanor Laws throw around the tired old ‘witch-hunt’ phrase in the courtroom and the media like it’s the biggest trend since skinny jeans. The discussion whirs into action again about whether those accused of rape should be afforded anonymity, over and above anyone who’s been accused of murder, terrorism, or a slew of equally horrific crimes. Perhaps every suspect of every crime should be afforded anonymity until conviction. But marking out rape as the singular crime deserving of that treatment seems to imply that it carries with it a far greater likelihood of false accusation. The woman who accuses a man of rape from motivations of attention, greed, revenge or rejection lives large in the public imagination.

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It was an odd feeling, watching how quickly the tabloid coverage of this particular case switched from the lurid, unsavoury headlines which seemed to almost imply a sick titillation (The Mirror ran with the front-page ‘He put a teddy bear in my mouth and then raped me’), to celebratory crowing and photographs of Le Vell grinning widely and holding a pint. Which we suppose that is what one does, after one has been subject to a celebrity child rape witch-hunt and found ‘not guilty.’ Now that the tabloids have begun questioning whether or not the CPS should have ever taken the trial to court, the DPP (cough witchfinder general cough) has had to wade in and explain that, contrary to what certain corners of the media might suggest, the Crown Prosecution Service does not operate on the basis of rumour or conjecture, or at the behest of ‘hysterical little girls’, but because it believes there is a case to answer. In other words, as far as they’re concerned, there is sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction.

So while those members of Le Vell’s family who chose to champion his cause tell the papers of their relief, of their enduring faith in his innocence, and of the vicious witch hunt which has destroyed the life of one man, it is worth remembering that there were people out there, professional people, expert people, who felt that the prospect of Le Vell being found guilty was realistic. They looked at the testimony and evidence before them, and concluded that there was good enough cause for a case. That the jury deemed Le Vell ‘not guilty’ does not undermine the importance of the CPS’ work in assessing the evidence for prosecutions. Nor is the principle of the ‘not guilty’ verdict difficult to understand; it means that the jury could not find the defendant guilty beyond all reasonable doubt.

The treatment and cross-examination of witnesses in sex abuse trials has recently resurfaced as subject of debate. We know that our legal system is not the most amenable to women wishing to report a rape, but much less discussed is the fact that the methods of gathering evidence seem to take much into account the effect that the reliving of traumatic events will have on testimony, often rendering it muddled and inconsistent. How the remembering of the terrible event over time can become more lucid or contradictory as new details surface. It’s in the nature of trauma. We should be focusing on these aspects too, rather than shining the spotlight on one particular case in which a man has been found not guilty and using it as an example to argue for the anonymity of rape defendants. The Le Vell case is over, but there are many other cases in which a ‘guilty’ verdict was delivered, and many others where one should have been but wasn’t.

In the meantime, we’d do well to remember that a trial ending in acquittal does not negate the need for a trial.

It’s called justice. Isn’t it?