Two relatively famous celebrities, one a radio and TV disc jockey and the other a principal actor in a long-running TV soap opera, were acquitted of multiple charges of rape and sexual assault in the British courts recently. The cases are dubbed ‘historical sex abuse’ as the alleged assaults took place 30 and even 40 years ago.
In ‘historical’ rape cases, the jury has to decide between the word of the victims who allege abuse and the denial of the defendants, as there is unlikely to be corroborative, eyewitness or forensic evidence. In these two cases the juries found the DJ, Dave Lee Travis, now in his 70s and William Roache, the actor from Coronation Street, now in his 80s, not guilty of all charges. Being celebrities, albeit of a certain age, the cases attracted huge publicity.
British law protects women who allege rape by affording them anonymity so as to reduce the trauma that recollection in a court may cause. The accused are named as soon as they are charged.
The acquittals in both cases have resulted in two important debates with significant legal implications. The first is a demand to offer anonymity to all those accused of rape until a guilty verdict is delivered by jury trial. The second debate questions the motives of those women who allege rape or sexual assault 30 or 40 years after the crime has taken place.
Both issues are riddled with convoluted considerations. First, a court acquittal which sets a defendant free is not seen as an end to the matter as the legal verdict is not necessarily assumed in the court of public opinion to be the last word. The English expression ‘no smoke without fire’ prejudices swathes of public opinion to believe the witnesses whose testimony the jury disbelieved. Lee Travis and Roache may have been exonerated by the law and are today free and yet besmirched citizens. The stain of doubt remains.
That the supposed victims stayed silent for decades or at least did not file complaints that would result in a prosecution does not necessarily mean that they are now lying. There can be several compelling reasons for their silence at the time, not the least of them that celebrities or men in power can be intimidating opponents.
The celebrity status of alleged rapists complicates the debate even further. Being well-known, with faces which are recognised, they presumably have to live with the shadow, however faint, of having been publicly accused and remaining in the public eye as, say, an acquitted Joe Public would not.
The celebrity status is double-edged in other ways. Are juries swayed by their judgment not of the facts of the case but of the professional persona that the accused have?
No law does or should take into account the dress or manner of the victim of a rape or assault. It is part of the culture of most societies to blame the victims of rape for attracting the attention or stimulating the libido of the rapist. The plea of the rapist has traditionally been ‘she was asking for it’ or even that ‘no’ means ‘yes’.
In the wake of the recent cases of sexual abuse, most of them to do with celebrities accused of ‘historical’ rape, a new unfairness enters the debate. It is assumed that women who complain that they have been raped or sexually abused by someone in the public eye are doing it to seek financial compensation from men of means or indeed seeking to attach themselves to headline stories so as to sell their personal accounts for substantial sums to the press. Obviously if the men they accuse are acquitted these motives disappear.
Any rape trial is an invasion of the privacy, shame and trauma of the victims who allege rape and, if the accused is innocent, of the alleged rapist. So far no woman who has accused a celebrity of rape and had him successfully prosecuted has sold a lucrative story to the press.
The attribution of financial motives to those who come forward to give evidence against rapists may quite possibly inhibit women who have been victims of rape from coming forward.
In recent cases in India, such as that of Tarun Tejpal, there are rumours of political rather than financial motivation, of set-ups and revenge on the part of the BJP against a journalist who exposed the wrongdoing of its president. Such motivation would be as impossible to prove as the vaunted financial incentives of women in Britain who want the notoriety of bringing a celebrity rapist to justice.
A fairer position for those accused of rape may well be that alleged rapists should also be afforded the anonymity that victims have until the verdict is known and beyond that time if the verdict is ‘not guilty’.
As for public judgement of the character, behaviour, dress or financial motivation of complainants, no consideration of these should at any stage enter the process of justice. A complainant’s character or behaviour should not be on trial — only the act of rape should.
Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London
The views expressed by the author are personal