Rape, rumours and justice

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on the raping footballers allegations.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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The story of the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl in a London hotel room may give a glimpse of the squalid private lives of some young footballers. But the manner in which the story has been handled also reveals the sordid state of our public life, and the way that ideals such as truth and justice can be degraded and abused.

To judge by popular reactions, ‘truth’ is now widely associated with rumours about who did what, spread via the internet, since any official statement is automatically assumed to be a cover-up or a lie. And to judge by the legal authorities’ reaction, ‘justice’ now involves shrouding such a case in as much secrecy as possible, since we of the mob are not to be trusted with too much information. The public interest is ill served by this unattractive coupling of whispered rumours and legal threats. It would be better all round if anonymity were removed from both the accused and the accuser in cases of alleged sexual assault. That way there is at least a chance that truth and justice could be openly pursued.

Instead of puerile gossip in the internet playground, we might even have a mature consideration of all the facts. Of course, this would also necessitate accepting some seriously grown-up ideas, such as the fact that the accused really are innocent until proven guilty, and that there really is no reason for a rape victim to be ashamed or stigmatised for telling the truth.

Internet rumours accusing dozens of footballers of involvement in the alleged rape have spread like wildfire. The appetite for such unsubstantiated guff is one consequence of living in an atmosphere of public mistrust. Anybody who is bored in the office, or has a computer in a bedsit, can now circulate an e-mail claiming to reveal the ‘hidden truth’ about anything, and have their gossip accepted as good intellectual coin.

Anybody with a grudge or a prejudice can publicise his pet conspiracy theory about September 11, Dr David Kelly, the MMR vaccination, raping footballers, or whatever, and expect to be taken seriously. Ours is the golden age of the garrulous idiot, the village halfwit with access to the worldwide web.

If that is not bad enough, the official attempt to silence the rumour mill only makes matters worse. Witness the supercilious moralising of those who decreed that the public must not be told the names of the accused footballers, or even the clubs that they play for. The Attorney-General, no less, warned newspapers and broadcasters to keep shtoom. Lawyers threatened to sue an individual accused of forwarding one of countless defamatory e-mails. Television and radio outlets worried that they might accidentally broadcast chants about an accused player at the weekend’s matches, and the police told fans that they faced arrest if their chanting caused a breach of the peace.

These pointless new rituals of legal repression did nothing to prevent the names from slipping out. But they have helped to turn the case into a mysterious whodunit, intensifying the rumour-mongering and making the entire circus more damaging to all of those caught up in it.

It is said that the way this story has been handled by the media will strengthen the case for extending public anonymity to the accused as well as the accuser. But if the law has to be changed, justice would be better served by preventing anybody, accuser or accused, from hiding behind the cloak of anonymity. We forget how recently such a dubious concept was introduced. In 1976 rape complainants and defendants were granted anonymity; in 1988 it was restricted to complainants.

Either way, state-enforced secrecy is anathema to open justice, which should not only be done, but be seen to be done. In a more mature society, we might trust ourselves to handle rape cases like grown-ups. But then again, in a more mature society we might be less obsessed with tawdry tales of sex, football and celebrity in the first place.

By the way, have you heard what the seven dwarves got up to with Snow White? Sure, they say it’s a fairytale, but it must be true – I’ve got the anonymously sourced email circular to prove it.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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