Shield of anonymity
One aspect of the Delhi gangrape that touches a chord in London where several high-profile sexual offence cases are in the news, is the question of naming the people concerned.
The consequences of the accused person’s name being disclosed, irrespective of guilt or innocence, will be highlighted this Wednesday (September 18) when the former deputy speaker of the House of Commons appears in court.
British (and Indian) law guarantees anonymity to victims. But Maura McGowan, chairman of Britain’s Bar Council, feels accused people deserve similar consideration. Now that privilege is restricted to minors, as we know only too well from the Delhi tragedy. A poll this year found that three out of four British respondents would like defendants to remain similarly anonymous until convicted. Anonymity was granted to rape defendants under the 1976 Sexual Offences Act, but was removed in 1988.
The debate is not unlike India’s controversy over naming people whose houses or offices the police raid. Even if nothing is found (and officials never admit that!), raids conjure visions of metal detectors and hoards of gold and illicit cash tumbling out of hidden vaults. Just being charged with a sexual crime carries an even worse stigma. It also violates the ancient principle that innocence must be presumed until guilt is proved.
A recent provocation for debate is the acquittal of a popular television star, Michael Turner (stage name Michael Le Vell), on 12 charges based on the complaint of a 17-year-old girl (she can’t be named like the teenaged fifth accused in Delhi) that he had raped her repeatedly ever since she was six. The graphic account she gave in the witness box of Turner, who played a car mechanic in Coronation Street, Britain’s longest running soap opera, raping her while she clutched a teddy bear, must have been false. But what became notorious as the “Rochdale grooming” holds more serious political reasons for concealing identities that Indian readers would understand.
The leaders of a sex trafficking gang in Rochdale, a now derelict mill town near Manchester Mahatma Gandhi visited in 1931, were all Muslim. With the exception of one Afghan, they were also all ethnic. Their under-age victims — the police identified no fewer than 47 girls — were all white. Given public indignation, British Indians objected to the accused being called Asian.
In India the case might have encouraged Sangh Parivar activists to fuel anti-Muslim passion. Here, the discussion centred on whether the criminals were racially motivated, or, conversely, whether police delayed investigating them for fear of being accused of racism. Even social work departments apparently failed to act speedily lest they appear racist. Tim Loughton, then Britain’s minister for children and families, urged police and social workers not to allow “political correctness around ethnicity” to hinder their work of stamping out crime. The men were all convicted in May last year of rape, trafficking girls for sex and conspiracy to engage in sexual activity with children.
The argument is that the accused’s identity should be concealed only because like Turner, he might be innocent. Another man, Terry Harrison, who was falsely accused of rape five years ago and contemplated suicide because of the abuse he suffered after the media named him, agrees. Only the guilty should be named and shamed, he says. The present system makes a mockery of justice. “Innocent until proven guilty is a load of rubbish. I was guilty until I was proven innocent and even when I was proven innocent, I’m still getting judged.”
Some people feel that in the past, when people accused of sex crimes were granted anonymity, there was a feeling it gave them too much protection. Jill Saward, who herself was raped and is now a rape campaigner, agrees. Other people — potential victims — are lulled into a sense of false security when a rapist or potential rapist enjoys anonymity. It isn’t fair to the community, she says, if people are not warned of the danger they might be facing. “Many of these people who are out there committing rape are serial rapists.” One case alone may not provide enough evidence to convict them, but once their identity is known, other victims might come forward and give evidence.
John Cooper, a leading human rights barrister, introduces a legal objection. If somebody who is accused of a sex crime receives anonymity, then those who are accused of other offences — theft, forgery, arson, murder, any crime whatsoever — should be similarly favoured. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.
Two celebrity cases have made paedophilia as topical as rape seems to be in India. One concerns Stuart Hall, a former BBC broadcaster, who admitted to 14 cases of sexual assault. The other involves an even better known entertainer, Jimmy Saville, whom the national society for the prevention of cruelty to children called “one of the most prolific sex offenders in its 129-year history”.
Wednesday’s case concerns 55-year-old Nigel Evans who has been a prominent member of Britain’s House of Commons since 1992 and was deputy speaker of the House of Commons. His career didn’t appear to be affected when Mr Evans confessed three years ago to being gay. But he will appear in court on September 18 charged with eight offences of sexual assault, indecent assault and rape against seven men whose names have not been disclosed. But Mr Evans’ has hit the headlines. He calls the charges “incredulous” and pleads innocence. Whether he is or not, he has resigned as deputy speaker and his political career is finished. That may not have happened if the law entitled the accused to be as anonymous as the victims.
The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author