Should journalists cover rape case failings?

// 6 January 2014

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Melanie Newman responds to the view that the media’s focus on rape investigation failures and low conviction rates is unhelpful to victims, arguing that with fatalism setting in over rape conviction rates, more media scrutiny is essential to prove that improvements can still be made.

 Is it ever right to cover up wrongdoing and incompetence in rape investigations? Some women say it is.

For the last few months I’ve been looking into rape and the criminal justice system. During this research I’ve been told by several women working on the ground with rape survivors that stories casting the police and prosecutors in a negative light do women no favours.

Sexual assaults are massively under-reported, these women said, meaning that huge numbers of crimes go unpunished and perpetrators are left free to offend again. More scandals, they argued, would only make the situation worse.

These professionals hear, every day, direct and first hand, the reasons why people do not want to tell the police what has happened. If they say that bad press has a deterrent effect there is every reason to believe them.

Their argument also makes logical sense. In many cases factors such as fear, shame, family considerations and cultural attitudes are already acting to dissuade victims from reporting attacks.

It’s easy to see how negative publicity about police handling of rape could tip the balance against reporting still further. But can it really be right to deny the public information out of fear that some individuals – perhaps a small minority – might not, as a result, make the decision we hoped they would?

If the attitude that bad press must be avoided were to become embedded, it could easily slip into collusion with poor practice. This must be a particular risk amongst individuals who depend on a good working relationship with the police.

In both the Jimmy Savile scandal, which was uncovered by an ITV documentary, and the Rotherham and Rochdale child grooming cases, which were brought to public attention by a Times investigative reporter, authorities turned a blind eye to sexual abuse of the most vulnerable.

Ironically, coverage of the failures in the Savile case has resulted in a nationwide increase in reports of sexual assaults, undermining the case for silence.

Another argument for media focus on failures within the criminal justice system is the view, which is gathering weight amongst some experts and policymakers, that rape conviction rates cannot be significantly improved. Baroness Stern’s 2010 review of rape handling by authorities in England and Wales criticised the focus on low conviction rates, adding:

All those who spoke to us who worked in the criminal justice system felt that the number of cases which were taken to court and ended in a conviction could be increased, no one argued that the increase could be substantial.

The country’s lead police officer on sexual offences, Martin Hewitt, struck an equally resigned note last year, saying forces should be more honest with victims about the “challenges” and “realities” of investigating rape. “Despite the bravery and tenacity of the victims who do go through the process, a third of rape prosecutions still don’t end in a conviction,” he said.

It is the media’s job to challenge this fatalistic attitude by exposing systemic failures within the criminal justice system – including those brought to light by whistleblowers, campaigners and MPs – and show that there is still room for significant improvement.

Some of the “scandals” the media has reported on in 2013 are listed below:

Would women really be better off if these stories had never come to light? Please let me know what you think.

Melanie Newman is a journalist who works in London. The views expressed are her own.

Photo of gold statue holding the scales of justice by Michael Grimes, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

sbasu // Posted 6 January 2014 at 9:54 pm

I understand the important point of this article, as last thing we want is more women feeling reluctant to report such hideous crimes. However, speaking from personal experience of the justice system, I think it’s important to hear the failings, because it is more of a shock to go into it blindly and then to discover the millions of flaws within the system, not being prepared for it. The devastation of finding this out can be fatal in cases. In this instance, it is far better to hear the experiences of rape survivors than people working on the ground with them.

Amy // Posted 7 January 2014 at 8:49 pm

It shouldn’t be up to the press or anyone to present the police and legal system in a better light – it is up to the police and legal system to stop being so horrendous at dealing with rape.

At the moment, there is significant risk of enduring more suffering (and in some cases, more violence and assault) when women report to the police. We shouldn’t be hiding this or shaming women for not reporting but putting pressure on the police and legal system to change.

Anonymous // Posted 7 January 2014 at 10:52 pm

It’s so difficult. On the one hand I agree that we dont want to put people off reporting. However as someone who has gone through the criminal justice system all I wanted to do for a while was shout from the roof tops about how terrible it is.

At the havens they twice forgot i had appointments, on my first visit they had no record that I had an appointment even though I had given lots of details over the phone, I then wasnt seen by a doctor which is usual procedure and it was left to a nurse to do everything. When i went back 3 months later they said this had been wrong and only then did i see a doctor. At later visits they took samples and then never called with my HIV test results for months and months. When I, 18 months after the rape, decided to go to the police I did the initial reporting through the Havens and the police woman actually said to me, please ignore the ‘flappy’ woman – referring to the havens worker. When I got to court i discovered, while in the witness box, because of some mess up the date I had originally gone to the havens was in dispute and so couldnt be used as evidence, i’m not sure why and never found out.

In terms of the sapphire unit, when they picked me up for my first interview they took me to the scene of the crime which was a strangers house ON THE WAY, before they even knew what had happened, they let me get possibly within feet of a perpetrator who was almost unknown to me and then were confused when i bolted. They were also incredibly difficult about me getting help from a rape crisis and wouldnt cooperate when i asked them to tell my advocate info when i was out of the country.

Court was a whole other series of difficulties and trauma.

I just put up with all of this the whole time, I thought it was the way things worked. It was only through reading articles about the failings of the system that I realised how bad what had happened in my case really was,and that I didnt have to put up with it.

I didnt report my rape to the police for 18 months and for me the reasons for not reporting in that time were much more personal and relationship/family/friends related that thinking about the reaction of the police and the treatment I would receive, but of course everyone is different.

In the end none of it is easy, but for me the police investigation and court proceeding were equally if not more traumatic than the rape. We can never make the trauma of rape and abuse easier, but we could make the justice system easier. While I find it difficult to constantly see stories with bad headlines about the police and rape splashed across the papers if people speaking out and the media covering the failings helps to change the system then I would probably think that is better in the long run.

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