Should journalists cover rape case failings?

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.

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