The conviction of Ched Evans (and acquittal of his co-defendant) of rape lit the blue touch paper on Twitter. There was an outpouring of vile tweets about the victim (documented by stfumisoginists here – now taken down). Things got more serious when various people named (or purported to name) the victim and directed the abuse at her.
I haven’t really commented on it as other people have been saying it better than me, but thought I’d chip in with a few thoughts after reading a Telegraph article by Brendan O’Neill asking for a ‘grown up discussion about anonymity in rape trials.
This being the Telegraph, I wasn’t expecting too much. There were two strands of his argument; firstly, that Twitter and other social networking sites make anonymity orders pointless and therefore the rules of the game have changed.
He doesn’t really develop the argument, so I won’t really respond to it. It is a counsel of despair. Whilst there are certainly arguments as to the extent to which the law needs to be re-visited in light of technological developments, this was not a considered response to supposed iniquity in the anonymity laws, but sheer hatred.
The second point he was making was the old chestnut; it’s unfair for complainants in rape cases to have anonymity whilst defendants don’t. On the face of it, it’s an appealing argument, but does it hold water? He offers three reasons.
Two; that ‘it makes a mockery of the ideal of equality before the law’ by somehow putting the needs of complainants before defendants and that it is contrary to ‘open justice’ as we don’t know the complainant’s name, can be easily disposed of:
It has nothing to do with equality before the law – the general rule is that the actors in a criminal case can be named, but we recognise (for good reason) that there should be exceptions. If, for example, a defendant is under 18, (s)he won’t be named. Further, the trial was open. Anyone could go and see it. It could be (and was) extensively written about. When she gave evidence, the complainant would have given her name, it just can’t be reported. No-one is denied the right to see justice in action. I cannot see a principled reason why her name should be published (to his credit, he didn’t raise the Warren Blackwell case).
His third argument is more subtle, and on the face of it has a feminist edge. That is that by granting anonymity, this perpetuates the idea that someone who has been raped should be ashamed of it. One could say that the contents of the tweets directed at the complainant give ample evidence of why anonymity is important, but it’s an argument of principle and so should be met with a principled response.
O’Neill’s first argument defeats his second however. The reaction on Twitter shows that there is whole attitude out there amongst a lot of men (and some women) that are happy to heap the same old sexist bile on a rape victim. The report of the Helibron Committee (that lead to the anonymity law being introduced) is as valid now (sadly) as it was then. When we the public, and the press, can address these issues like adults and not deal in the same old sexist clichés of women being slags etc etc, then we can have a grown up conversation. The law around sexual offences is, in parts, controversial and should be debated, but this is not the way to do it.
Mr O’Neill appears to be, like me, a white middle class male. I imagine that he has never been the victim of a sexual attack (or he would have said so). I also imagine that he has never been to court with such a victim (by the tone of his article). That doesn’t preclude him from commenting. He has every right to his views, and every right to express them. But, when he doesn’t address any of the realities of the issues raised, we have every right to ignore his views.
I’m always up for a grown up discussion. Anyone want to start one? Because his article certainly didn’t.