Should those accused of sex crimes be granted anonymity?
The debate over whether those accused of sex crimes should keep their anonymity during an investigation has grown in volume after recent events.
Sir Cliff Richard. Paul Gambaccini. Leon Brittan, Edwin Bramall and Alistair McAlpine.
All have seen their reputations dragged through the mud because of malicious accusations of sex abuse.
This week’s conviction of Carl Beech, for making false accusations of child sex abuse against former home secretary Lord Brittan and ex-military chief Lord Bramall, has raised new questions over whether people accused of sex crimes should be granted anonymity – at least until charges are brought.
Beech, a 51-year-old former hospital inspector, also made allegations against former MPs Harvey Proctor and Greville Janner, ex-prime minister Sir Edward Heath, and former security chiefs Sir Maurice Oldfield and Sir Michael Hanley. Lord Brittan died before police told his family he had been cleared of all the allegations.
But a trial at the Old Bailey revealed Beech, a convicted paedophile, to be a ‘liar and fantasist’, and he was found guilty of 12 charges of perverting the course of justice, and a one of fraud.
The case came shortly after a petition was lodged by Sir Cliff and ex-Radio 1 DJ Gambaccini, calling for new laws which would make it an offence for anybody to publicly identify sex-crime suspects until they have been charged.
So far, more than 26,000 people have signed up to it, meaning it will at the very least get a response from the Government. If it manages to attract 100,000 names, it will be considered for a debate in Parliament.
But while most will sympathise with the ordeal those falsely accused have been through, the question about anonymity for alleged sex offenders is one that continues to divide opinion.
Defendants in rape cases, along with the complainants, were given anonymity in 1976, but it was repealed in 1988 on the basis that rape suspects should be treated no differently to those accused of other serious crimes, such as murder or terrorism.
The Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition of 2010 pledged to review the matter, but concluded later that year that there was insufficient evidence to justify a change in the law.
Campaigner Holly Archer, who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of a notorious child-grooming gang in Telford, is firmly opposed to any new laws which would hide the identity of sex-crime suspects. The system, she says, is already weighted against the victims of sex crimes.
“Victims of sexual violence and childhood sexual abuse are already at a disadvantage when reporting crimes to the police, statistics prove this,” she says.
“Police estimate 39,000 sexual offences were committed in 2016, with only 3,700 rape cases making to court in the same year.”
Miss Archer – not her real name – says sex offences go vastly unreported, with victims feeling they will not be believed or given adequate support.
And despite the high profile that the Beech case has attracted, Miss Archer says the number of malicious reports was still extremely low.
“The percentage of reports suspected to be false rape allegations remains very low at four per cent, leaving a remaining 96 per cent suspected to be genuine,” she says.
“As a survivor of sexual violence and exploitation, I think its important that we remember that even cases that make it to court, and a not guilty verdict is the end result, this doesn’t mean that the crime didn’t happen or that the victim is a liar.
“It means that there was doubt cast that the offence didn’t take place, the onus of 100 per cent proof lies with the victim.”
Miss Archer cites the case of former football coach Barry Bennell, who was jailed for 30 years in 2018 for a catalogue of abuse against young players. But dozens of cases only came to light after Bennell had been convicted in 2015 of a 1980 assault on former youth footballer David Lean.
Miss Archer says: “The naming of alleged perpetrators of sexual violence or childhood sexual abuse enables other victims to come forward to give their accounts of their own experiences
“Not naming them, is offering protection to paedophiles and rapists.”
Sir Cliff Richard: I felt no jubilation
Sir Cliff was last year awarded £210,000 damages from the BBC over its coverage of a search at his home. The pop star was never arrested or charged with any offence, and says the publicity had a major impact on his health.
“Within six months of the allegation I had shingles all over my head and my face,” he says, adding that he didn’t sleep properly for four years.
“When I came out of the court case, I won my case hands down but I felt no jubilation, I did not punch the air as I came out.
“No smoke without fire is a stupid saying – people can be evil enough to tell a lie about an innocent person.”
Gambaccini was arrested in November 2013 as part of the Operation Yewtree investigation into historic sex offences, but was told the following October that he would not face any charges.
He said he had been used as ‘human fly paper’, to encourage other people to come forward with allegations against him.
“My family did not deserve to be hit over the head with a sledgehammer,” he says.
“At the moment accusers have life-long anonymity and the accused have no seconds of anonymity. And this does, unfortunately, encourage everyone from liars to lunatics to make some false accusations and get in on the action.”
Miss Archer is unconvinced.
“More needs to be done to enable victims to gain justice and the confidence to speak out,” she says.