A pair of British celebrities have introduced a petition calling on parliament to grant anonymity to those accused of rape until they are charged. On Monday, the British pop singer Cliff Richard and broadcaster Paul Gambaccini held a media-packed event announcing the petition. Both men were previously accused of sex crimes, but the cases were ultimately dropped and they allege reputational damage from the surrounding press coverage. Now they are calling for a “re-balancing of the legal system” while forwarding unsourced claims about a “false allegation crisis.”
The argument around extending anonymity to the accused in sex crime allegations has been revisited several times now in the United Kingdom. The very same pair of men, along with parliamentary member Nigel Evans, in 2016 launched an unsuccessful anonymity campaign. (Please do behold this pic of the trio posing with their hands in “go team” mode.) These pushes are invariably premised on the concept of fairness, owing to the fact that accusers in sex crime cases are already legally granted anonymity. In fact, the group behind this latest petition is Falsely Accused Individuals for Reform, or FAIR.
Never mind that accusers are granted anonymity for reasons of fairness—most notably because revealing their identities would drastically discourage already minimal levels of rape reporting.
Each time this topic arises, it inspires a frenzy of media attention in the UK, and victims’ advocates exercise saintly patience while reciting the same sensible arguments: mandated anonymity for the accused would perpetuate myths about false rape accusations, discourage reporting of rape, and hinder law enforcement’s ability to locate additional victims. And each time, at least thus far, the push for suspect anonymity has been shelved on these same grounds. But, here we are once again, with victims’ advocates patiently explaining the lie of suspect anonymity as an act of “fairness.”
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On Monday, Katie Russell, spokesperson for Rape Crisis England and Wales, told the BBC that granting suspects anonymity solely around sex crimes would “inevitably reinforce the public misconception... that those suspected of sexual offences are more likely to have been falsely accused.” Advocates have been making variations on this point for years—that uniquely protecting those accused of sex crimes implies that accusers in these cases are uniquely untrustworthy, which is demonstrably untrue. In 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service reported that false accusations around sex crimes were not only rare, but also no more common than for any other type of crime.
Contrary to a “crisis” of false allegations, the End Violence Against Women (EVAW) coalition argues that there is a crisis of underreporting of rape. In a 2016 letter on the issue, addressed to Richard, Gambaccini, and Evans, the group wrote, “It’s estimated that only 10-15% of rapes are ever reported to police.” Activists argue that legislation treating sex crime accusers as uniquely dishonest will only further discourage reporting.
On the other hand, there are stunning examples of how publicizing the name of the accused can actually encourage additional reporting to police. In 2008, the taxi driver John Worboys was arrested following accusations of multiple sexual assaults on passengers in the back of his cab, which led to his being publicly named. Ultimately, at least 85 women came forward with allegations. This is why the guidelines for the UK’s College of Policing advise, “Police will not name those arrested, or suspected of a crime, save in exceptional circumstances where there is a legitimate policing purpose to do so. ” Among the listed “legitimate policing purposes” is “the prevention or detection of crime.” Legislating against police discretion around naming the accused takes away a powerful tool for finding other alleged victims.
These concerns around the ability to locate other victims have successfully stalled previous anonymity pushes. In 2010, parliament considered introducing anonymity legislation, but changed course after finding “insufficient reliable empirical evidence” in favor of “anonymity for rape defendants.” Questions were specifically raised as to “whether the inability to publicise a person’s identity will prevent further witnesses to a known offence from coming forward, or further unknown offences by the same person from coming to light.”
As EVAW argued in its years-ago letter, the harm that the accused and acquitted experience is “a result not of the fact of being named but of terrible media representation of sexual violence cases, accompanied by a collective failure to uphold the presumption of innocence.” (In fact, Richard won massive damages in a privacy case against the BBC relating to its coverage of the accusations against him.) The letter continued, “We should all stand up and tackle these problems—media sensationalism and protecting the presumption of innocence—but it is of the utmost importance that police retain the ability to name a suspect when they have good investigative reasons to do so.”
On Sunday, the day before Richard and Gambaccini’s announcement, the group tweeted, “Tomorrow a group of rich, privileged men are planning to launch another campaign for anonymity—despite knowing that it would make it harder for victims to get justice after rape.” They then linked, once again, to the letter.