As Cliff Richard and Paul Gambaccini campaign hard for anonymity for sex offenders starting as from Monday morning, I remind myself how many times this topic has arisen and been debated over the last 21 years that I have been representing the victims of child abuse in various institutions and within the family. Hopefully I can give my views to Breakfast viewers tomorrow on BBC1
The mood of opinion tends to swing like a pendulum from one side to the other. Thankfully, sympathy is usually with the victim of rape, indecent assault, and cruelty, particularly because, in general terms, they are usually minors under the age of 18 who clearly are vulnerable, and in need of special protection by the law. One must not forget, however, the elderly, and those suffering from mental disorders, some of whom lack capacity.
The scales of justice, however, must also protect those who are accused of serious sexual offences, so as to redress any balance shown in favour of the victim. It has been the law since the 1990’s that victims of abuse are entitled to anonymity when they are complainants in criminal cases. The law has also extended this privilege to civil proceedings. The media are prohibited from publishing their name or any information which may lead to their identification. The same privilege is not afforded to the accused who can be named at any time whether arrested, charged, or acquitted.
Celebrities, however, are more concerned than ordinary members of the public, because their success is deeply rooted in their media profile. Thus, that same reputation can be ruined if they are accused of sexual offences, whether they are guilty or not.
So, should the law provide equal protection to the accused as it does to the victim? If so should there be a distinction made when the accused is charged, because at that time the fact becomes public knowledge, but little or no facts can be published which are not announced in open court.
I can see the argument that the accused does not want publicity when he is arrested because, as happened to Paul Gambaccini, he was never charged and remained on bail for 12 months – an agonising wait. On the other hand, the police do not arrest someone on a whim, particularly when they have such a high media profile. They know what the backlash will be if no charge results.
The police rarely arrest someone in abuse cases on the unsupported testimony of 1 individual.
They know that they will have to prove the offence beyond reasonable doubt, and that, in the case of a celebrity, their conduct will be examined minutely in case there is a flaw.
Because there is debate of the naming of the accused in the media, their practice is often to maintain anonymity, such that, if the media publish any information, it is often done as the result of a leak, rather than at the instigation of the police.
It is rarely the media that comes in for criticism, but it is their thirst for sensationalism that provokes the argument rather than any intended impediment on reporting which is being argued for. Without the media and the desire of the public for stories about celebrities, the problem would not be so acute.
Arguably, celebrities, who make their fame by constant contact with the media, cannot complain when the story does not benefit them, but rather criticises them.
If the name is released at any time, but particularly before charge, it is because the police are convinced that many victims unknown to them have not disclosed, and made themselves known. This is often true of institutional abuse where the accused has been exposed to children on a regular basis over a number of years, such that the possibility of other victims coming forward is high.
I have experienced countless occasions when, as a result of publicity about a case, further victims have come forward, thus making the case stronger, and the sentence received by the accused longer. Indeed on at least 2 occasions, the accused has appealed for witnesses of good character to come forward through the media, only to be disappointed that yet more victims have made complaints against them to the police.
The argument the accused always produce is that the police are indulging in a witch hunt, and are trying to prosecute a case against them on false evidence. This only works in a multi-claimant case, which is the norm, if you believe that all the victims have conspired to give false evidence. Whilst false accusations exist, all the research shows that they are very much in the minority, certainly not such as to persuade Parliament to change the law and give anonymity to the accused.
The law of anonymity does not apply to those accused of murder, manslaughter, robbery, or burglary, so why should a special case be made, and protection be given to celebrities charged with sexual offences? One cannot argue, presumably, that a witch hunt is any more likely where the allegation is interference with a child and the accused is in the public eye.
Finally, the scales of justice must mirror the power available to both sides of the criminal case, namely prosecution and defence. In a case of child abuse the power imbalance is invariably with the abuser who preys upon a child who is powerless. He/she uses his/her power to manipulate, groom, and persuade him/her to submit to his/her power. Thus, to redress the imbalance in power, the law has to protect the child or the vulnerable adult from the abuser.
I do not believe that the law will change so as to give complete anonymity to those accused of abuse, though I can foresee the possibility of strong arguments being advanced before charge. I doubt however, that there will be the political will against the backdrop of abuse being such a high priority in government business.