Guest blog: False allegations of rape - The zombie myth that just won't die

BBCBased on the findings of a recent report from the Crown Prosecution Service, Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer has stated that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are far less common than many believe. As if to prove his point, coverage of the findings on the BBC and elsewhere has focused not on the myth-busting figures themselves, but on some of those rare cases of false allegation.

In this post, Holly Dustin, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, argues that the BBC’s reaction is representative of a wider issue surrounding the perception of rape victims and perpetrators, and a deeply entrenched rape myth. 

Keir Starmer's statement, and its reception in the media, have been discussed by Mumsnetters in this Talk thread. Feel free to go along and share your view, and if you blog about this - please do tweet us your post. 

Some myths just won't die, and the myth that there are large numbers of false allegations of rape is like a zombie; apparently killed off by hard evidence and facts, yet continually staggering back to generate more heated debate, but little light. And always accompanied by the predictable call for men accused of rape to be given anonymity. Let's not beat about the bush – it’s the age-old myth that women routinely lie, especially about sex.

As Mumsnetters will know, yesterday saw the publication of a landmark report by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), Under The Spotlight, which found that false allegations for rape or domestic violence purely out of malice are ‘extremely rare’.

The CPS has examined all possible cases of false allegations of rape and domestic violence in a 17 month period between January 2011 and May 2012 across England and Wales. During this period, there were just 35 prosecutions for false allegations of rape, six for domestic violence and three for in both rape and domestic violence. A handful of cases then, and, as the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said “a significant number of these cases involved young, often vulnerable people, and sometimes even children…..some involved people with mental health difficulties” (You have to question why vulnerable, young people with mental health problems are being prosecuted at all). In contrast, during the same period, there were 5651 prosecutions for rape and 111,891 for domestic violence.

End Violence Against Women I think this report is critical - and congratulate the CPS for carrying out this work. It comes shortly after Chairman of the Bar, Maura McGowan QC, called for anonymity for those accused of rape because the crimes “carry such a stigma." But why single out rape? Why did Ms McGowan not call for anonymity for people accused of murder, knife crime or child neglect cases (all pretty stigmatizing, don’t you think)? But the Bar Council was strangely silent about the evidence upon which this call to undermine our system of open justice was made, and hasn’t commented on the CPS report.
In fact, publicising the defendant’s name in sexual offence cases can be part of the investigation process - sex offences are often repeat offences. Jimmy Savile, children’s football coach, Kirk Reid, and taxi driver John Worboys were all prolific sex offenders, whose multiple victims came forwards after publicity.

Mumsnetters may remember that when the Coalition Government came to power in 2010, one of its early announcements was to introduce anonymity for men accused of rape, even though it was in neither party’s manifesto (it was a long-standing Lib Dem policy). The policy was subsequently dropped, because after looking at the issue, they had found no evidence to support such a change.
Nevertheless, there was much media coverage when the issue cropped up again when, after child rape charges against him were dropped, Corrie star Michael Le Vell (Kevin Webster) called for a law change to protect people’s identities until conviction. Le Vell was recently rearrested and charged with 19 offences, including child rape.

Claims of false allegations are seized upon by parts of the media and headlines, such as the 2007 Daily Mail gem “Women who cry rape could soon face public shaming", leave women in little doubt that they risk a medieveal burning at the stake should they report to the police. It is no surprise that how the media treats rape was one of the reasons given for not reporting to police, by respondents to Mumsnet’s survey on rape as part of the excellent We Believe You campaign.

Inaccurate and prejudicial reporting of rape, and other violence against women, was one of the issues raised by women’s groups in evidence to the Leveson inquiry last year - and emerged as one of the key themes amongst 1300 sexist articles we examined over just two weeks for our Just the Women report. It is one of the reasons why we believe the new press regulator, currently being debated behind closed doors by politicians and editors, must take complaints from women’s groups and other experts, not just individual victims of bad media reporting, as Leveson himself said.

But of course, this kind of reporting took place before the CPS categorically debunked the myth of false allegations of rape. Surely the media can leave this sorry debate behind and focus on the real issues around sexual violence, such as the government stats that show that each year in England and Wales 85,000 people are raped and that, far from making up rape, the vast majority of these don't report to the police. Or that a third of sexual crimes involve children under 16, and yet services for children who are sexually abused are few and far between.

"The BBC should be bending over backwards to show that it recognizes the scale of sexual abuse in society more broadly and that, more than anyone, it reports on these issues accurately and without prejudice."

Apparently not; yesterday the BBC Newsbeat website caused outrage by covering the report with a story focusing on how common false rape allegations are with the headline ".False rape claims devastating for the accused". You couldn’t make it up! Feminists on Twitter and Mumsnetters jumped on it, and women’s groups made a formal complaint to the BBC’s Head of News, to which we received this astonishing reply

Lest we forget, the BBC is still in turmoil over revelations that one of its all-time star celebs, Jimmy Savile, raped and assaulted women, girls and boys over decades, some of it on BBC premises. Female presenters have spoken out about a culture of sexism and sexual harassment at the BBC. It should be bending over backwards to show that it recognizes the scale of sexual abuse in society more broadly and that, more than anyone, it reports on these issues accurately and without prejudice. Nevertheless, Newsbeat, with its youth audience, some of whom will be victims and some potential perpetrators, chose to send the message that women lie and are not to be believed, despite the evidence to the contrary.

It's worth quoting the DPP again, who says "Victims of rape and domestic violence must not be deterred from reporting the abuse they have suffered. In recent years we have worked hard to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes that are associated with these cases. One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife. This report presents a more accurate picture.” Presumably the BBC thought, stuff you, who needs accuracy when you can peddle some myths?

What does all this tell us? That the BBC has not yet transformed its sexist culture - and that zombie myths about rape are deeply entrenched, and just will not die.


Last updated: 16-Apr-2013 at 12:12 PM