The BBC, the myth of false allegations and culpability

On 12 March 2013, The Crown Prosecution Service published a report by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, into so-called false allegations of rape and domestic violence. The report – showing that false allegations are rare, and probably rarer than most people think1 –   is part of work being undertaken by the CPS to improve its handling of cases involving violence against women and girls

Rapists and abusers are the ones who need to be held responsible for the crimes that they commit. Yet we all share a responsibility for creating a culture that either supports victims, or one that supports abusers. Doing nothing permits rapists and abusers to hold a sense of entitlement and impunity; ultimately, to carry on raping and abusing.

The BBC, in their coverage of the DDP’s report, on both Radio 4’s Today programme and Newsbeat, decided to focus on the ‘extent’ of false accusations and the trauma of being falsely accused. They chose to take this position despite Starmer’s stated aim of wanting to dispel damaging myths about false allegations. Damaging myths that, if held, make it less likely that victims of rape are going to be believed. Damaging myths, so often internalised by victims of rape and abuse, that make them fearful that they will not be believed and so less likely to report.

Like many others, I was angry and disappointed. I complained to the BBC. I asked the BBC to ask themselves whether their coverage of the report made it easier or harder for women and children to report abuse. I suggested that in peddling the myth of false accusations, they were demonstrating that they had learned nothing from what we have come to know about their role in the widespread abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile.

I’ve now received a reply from BBC Complaints. They explained that they were fulfilling their role as impartial observer. The full response is reproduced below2 but these two paragraphs in particular warrant special attention:

I’m sorry if you objected to this approach, and for your concerns and misperception linking this fundamental approach to the Jimmy Savile case. Within a democratic society, however, the BBC would be failing in its duty if it didn’t take such an approach. This may include hearing opinions or observations which you personally disagree with, or counter-statistics you would dispute, but which individuals may be fully entitled to hold in the context of legitimate debate.

We understand there is always room for debate about particular news judgements, but the principles are pretty clear. To depart from them would open the BBC to justified complaint, and would eventually undermine the public’s trust in our reporting as a whole.

Linking their coverage of the CPS report to their role in the abuse by Jimmy Savile is “my misconception”? Savile is one of the country’s most prolific sexual abusers of women and children. The BBC need to ask themselves what they did, and what they did not do, to allow his role with them to give him almost unrestricted access to women and children. The BBC harboured and protected Savile from 1964 -2012. The extent of Savile’s abuse; the claims that his abuse was not only widely suspected but also known of, and the shambles around Newsnight’s decision to drop the probe into his predatory sexual abuse, illustrate systemic failings of the most profound nature. The BBC is worried about failing in its democratic duty. Have they considered their duty of care to women and children? Is that less important? When being a “devil’s advocate” and promoting legitimate debate makes it easier for rapists to carry on raping, whilst making it harder for victims to seek support and justice, where should their priority lie?

And what about undermining the public’s trust in the BBC‘s reporting? Police are now aware of alleged sexual abuse of hundreds of women, children and young people over five decades by Savile. What about the public’s trust in the institution through which much of this abuse was conducted? Again, surely it is this that merits their concern.

I’d suggested that the BBC were using the myth of false reporting to justify their own failings. Their response to my complaint suggests that they are now using the myth of (their) objective reporting to deny that they have any culpability in creating a culture in which women and children are disbelieved. It’s no coincidence that Rape Crisis helplines across the country saw a huge increase in the volume of calls as the extent of Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse became clear. People who were being abused, people who had been abused as children, suddenly had reason to think that someone might listen to them. Someone just might believe them. Someone was saying that it wasn’t their fault.

Savile was raping and sexually abusing women, girls and boys between 1955 and 2009, with the first recorded reports to police in 1964. The myth of false reporting and fear of not being believed denies victims of sexual violence access to support and justice and enables perpetrators to carry on abusing. The real story was that women and children need to be better protected by the criminal justice system. The BBC wants to patronise me for failing to understand the democratic process. After-all, I’m ‘just (one of) the women’. The BBC wants me to know that any link between their broadcasts emphasising false rape reporting, and through Savile their responsibility to protect either abusers or the abused, is my misconception. If they cannot see how wrong they are, any misconception is wholly theirs, not mine.

1During the 17 month reporting period covered by the report, there were 5,651 prosecutions for rape and 35 for making false allegations of rape. It’s estimated that 21% of rapes are reported to the police. We know that 82% of reported rapes do not come to trial. So if there were 5,651 prosecutions, something like, 31,394 will have been reported and a further 118,101, a total of would not have been reported. In other words:

  • Of 5,651 prosecutions for rape, 35 or 0.6% resulted in a prosecution for false allegation
  • Of 31,395 rapes reported to the police, 35 or 0.1% resulted in a prosecution for false allegation
  • 35 expressed as a percentage of the 149,495 estimated rapes that took place, is 0.02%

2 Dear Ms Ingala Smith

Reference CAS-1975481-VXRQK9

Thanks for contacting us regarding Radio 4’s 0800 News Bulletin on 13 March.

I’m sorry to note you were unhappy with the BBC’s reporting on the extent of false allegations of rape reporting.

As you acknowledge yourself however, our coverage heard directly from the head of the CPS, Keir Starmer QC. It was prompted by the release of statistics, widely covered in our coverage and given to the BBC by the CPS, which showed two people a month were being prosecuted for making a false claim, and wasting police time.

That we may have heard opposing views or had presenters playing devil’s advocate with Mr Starmer, during an interview, is simply part of our role as an impartial observer. It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge if such figures are disputed and the arguments and information provided by other contributors, including those who might challenge the CPS view, can only improve the debate or awareness of an issue. Our role is to provide the range of views for listeners and viewers and to hear informed argument from different sides, providing more context on a subject for our audience and more information for them to make up their own minds.

I’m sorry if you objected to this approach, and for your concerns and misperception linking this fundamental approach to the Jimmy Savile case. Within a democratic society, however, the BBC would be failing in its duty if it didn’t take such an approach. This may include hearing opinions or observations which you personally disagree with, or counter-statistics you would dispute, but which individuals may be fully entitled to hold in the context of legitimate debate.

We understand there is always room for debate about particular news judgements, but the principles are pretty clear. To depart from them would open the BBC to justified complaint, and would eventually undermine the public’s trust in our reporting as a whole.

Nevertheless, I’d like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log. This is the internal report of audience feedback we compile daily for news teams, programme makers and senior management within the BBC. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions and they ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.

Thanks again for contacting us.

Kind Regards

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