As a student journo, our bible is a Journalism Training Organisation book, Intro: A Beginners Guide to Professional News Journalism. It balances good practical information about how the media really operates, with brief discussions of ethical concerns and criticisms the media encounters.
So I was a little surprised the “Police Round” chapter, by award-winning journalists Alan Samson and James Hollings, included this statement, unqualified by research or alternative opinion:
Sex crimes It is illegal to report the victims’ names in any sex crime; it can be unethical and untasteful to describe a sexual crime in graphic detail. It is particularly important to be cautious about taking sides in the reporting: with emotions running high, false complaints are often made regarding sexual offences. Both sides can be very believable in their differing accounts.
This is the sum total of advice concerning reporting sexual offences. Student journalists – who bring their own ideas about rape to our work – are being told by our journalism manual that false rape complaints are common.
This is a widely held belief. Women are assumed to lie about rape because they had sex they later regretted, or they want revenge on someone in their life. In a brief stint volunteering with Rape Crisis, every single police officer I met at Lower Hutt Police Station told me after we were introduced over cups of tea or during smoko breaks that my job must be tough because “most women lie about rape.”
In fact, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that there are more false complaints of rape than other crimes. New Zealand is currently, for the first time, researching the attrition rates of rape complaints made to the police, so that we know where, and why, complaints drop out of the system.
If this study shows it’s because women are routinely lying about rape, I’ll eat the Intro journo book. Without pasta sauce – and that is a solemn promise you should hold me to, internet readers.
I believe it is more likely the results will show something similar to the most comprehensive study to date. This showed you have a 6% chance in the UK of seeing the person you accused of rape prosecuted. 94% of rape complaints do not ‘make the grade’. The researchers note:
False allegations have been one of the most contested areas within law enforcement responses to rape, with research suggesting rates are no higher than for other crimes sitting alongside perceptions of police officers and the media who take the opposite view.
and feature quotes from those involved in investigating rapes:
Well, honestly, it’s because most of them are not telling the truth … I think what happens to a lot of adults is they may have consensual sex with somebody, they get found out by their husband, partner, whoever, they then say “Oh but I didn’t consent” as a way of getting themselves out of that trouble … I mean I have dealt with hundreds and hundreds of rapes in the last few years, and I can honestly probably count on both hands the ones that I believe are truly genuine. (Comparison 1, Police Officer DC, M2, June 2002)
So of the 94%, how many complaints were found to be false when assessed by the researchers?
Those other 91% who didn’t see their rapist successfully prosecuted? Merely badly investigated, badly prosecuted, badly supported for complainants, and subject to recurring rape myths which make it unlikely, despite contrary evidence, that women will be believed. Let down by the justice system. And probably by the media, who rather than representing the issue fairly, would no doubt have decided the complaint was false, since that’s so ‘common.’
Although rape is still under-reported according to support services and national victims of crime surveys, rates of reporting have increased dramatically over the last 25 years. But look at rates of successful prosecution in the UK:
So more and more women must be coming forward to lie about sexual violence, huh?
And why wouldn’t you, with all those pleasant side effects of having your insides scraped out for evidence, your naked body photographed and viewed by strangers, police officers doubting you, defence lawyers asking you about who you’ve shagged lately, and what kind of underwear you like, juries thinking you’re not telling the truth. And that doesn’t even get to how the ‘public’ will treat you.
Oh, and lets not forget, a fair and balanced media trained to believe it’s likely you’re lying.
I feel a false rape complaint coming on….