Despite the masthead proudly flying the flag, this weekend I had cause to check that Kent hadn’t broken off from the mainland and made a dash for Calais. Once satisfied, I then checked it hadn’t had a revolution and declared itself independent of the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales.
My consternation was brought about by this headline:
An accusation of stranger sex? What on earth? Convinced that Kent was both still attached and indeed still within the legal jurisdiction of England and Wales, I pondered as to whether there was a new sexual offence that I hadn’t heard of. Had the nuns from school finally succeeded in having moral turpitude made into a criminal offence, and now dropping your pants with someone whose surname you were unsure off was not only a mere mortal sin, it was also an offence?
Um, no. It was all rather more serious than that.
Despite the headline, and the above being the lead paragraph to the story, what Hitchin was accused of was not ‘stranger sex’; it was rape. And at the time this story was published, he wasn’t merely accused – a jury had found him guilty.
In this grubby, sordid, 1970’s redtop-esque version of reporting a rape trial, it manages in 555 words to mention the word rape once and then not even in the main text. In a quote, it says:
At this stage, she wasn’t an ‘alleged’ anything. The jury, (who, it was helpfully reported, took 6hours 35 minutes to reach a verdict), decided that Hitchins was guilty of rape. There is no ‘alleged’ about it – she is a rape victim, and she was raped by Hitchins, an offence for which he is currently remanded in custody awaiting sentence.
The whole tenor of the piece is far removed from #IBelieveHer, using exclamation mark to illustrate the point that the victim had had consensual sex with her partner earlier in the evening (which is of course irrelevant), and of course mentioning that she was drunk at the time of the offence (which again, is irrelevant).
I found the piece grossly offensive, and mere steps away from pointing a finger at the victim and saying ‘Oh come on love, rape? Do me a favour’
I have written many times before on how rape cases are reported in the press, and the impact that can have both on public perceptions of the offence, and on other victims coming forward and reporting the offences committed against them to the police.
Imagine being her and reading that. Imagine being her friends and family reading that. And imagine being Hitchins friends and family reading that. Despite the conviction, the fingers of blame seeming point squarely her way. As a victim of rape surely she is entitled to some respect; respect which is sadly lacking in that piece.
Whilst it has been some time since a piece as bad as this has appeared in the national press, the fact that this mindset still exists in some publishing quarters, and the fact that the national press still have some way to go generally when reporting rape cases, demonstrates to me at least that perhaps we have reached a point in time where we need a set of guidelines as to how this offence is reported, starting with the basics of where the finger of blame should be pointed in such pieces.
We have spent the last 10 years making substantial improvements across the criminal justice system, and educating those within it how best to make the process cause the victim as little further pain as possible. In the age of Leveson, now is the time to spread that education further.
Should you want to read the report for yourself, it is here.
***Update: The original story has now been substantially rewritten, and can be found at the link above.