Standing on an emerald stretch of grass outside the Houses of Parliament, in front of backdrop with the word ‘fair’ scrawled across it, a remarkably privileged white man announced a grave imbalance of power surrounding criminal cases of sexual assault.
And I might have agreed with him. There is definitely an imbalance of power.
Except he wasn’t talking about the hardship faced by an ever-increasing number of survivors trying to access justice, like I did, and failing. After two bitter years of fighting, my own case was thrown out of court by the Crown Prosecution Service on a technicality days before I was set to take to the stand.
Sir Cliff Richard was there to discuss how the system is weighted against celebrities like him, whose reputations lie “in tatters” after they are “falsely accused” of sexual crimes and have their identities revealed during police investigations.
Many of you will remember seeing the live BBC News broadcast of police surrounding Sir Cliff’s Berkshire mansion before swooping in to investigate it for evidence of a complaint of historic sexual assault in 2014. He was never charged but, and he successfully sued the broadcaster for damages.
Nodding in agreement right beside him was another white, privileged man, DJ Paul Gambaccini. In an interview on BBC Radio 4 earlier that same day, he decried the apparent existence of a “false accusation crisis”.
Mr Gambaccini was accused of sexually assaulting two boys when he was arrested in October 2013 as part of Operation Yewtree, set up following revelations about paedophile Jimmy Savile. He was on bail for a year before the case was dropped.
“We have both been through the mill," Sir Cliff said. "When you know you didn’t do it, you feel you’re in a hole you can’t get out of.”
The pair are members of Falsely Accused Individuals for Reform (Fair), and they are using their privilege to launch a new campaign. They want to change the law to ensure blanket anonymity for all those suspected of sexual assault ahead of charging, and are hoping to get the matter debated in Parliament by gaining over 100,000 signatures on their petition.
Their call to arms is somewhat misplaced.
It is already best police practice – except in very rare circumstances where the public interest, including the possibility of encouraging new witnesses to come forward, is deemed greater than the risk to the individual – to retain the anonymity of a suspect accused of sexual assault until they are charged with the offence.
The law was changed in 1988 to give police the power to name individuals in this way on that grounds that being accused of rape was no different to being accused of any other crime and should not be treated as such.
Without it, several prolific and high profile attackers, such as Max Clifford and Rolf Harris, may not have received the sentences they deserved for their offences. Highly publicised investigations such as theirs undoubtedly led to more survivors having the courage to come forward in the knowledge that their largely historic claims would be taken seriously. It is also important to safeguard vulnerable members of the public – particularly children or those in care – to ensure the risk that they may be in contact with anyone under investigation for serious crimes is removed.
The “Fair” campaign is also dangerously misleading, and this is why.
Firstly, conviction rates are currently at a five-year low, so low, that just over a third of the 2,310 rape cases referred to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) between April and September last year resulted in charges being brought. So low, after a Guardian report revealed that an increasing number of decisions on whether cases are likely to result in a conviction are being made administratively by the CPS. So low, that scores of survivors who had their cases thrown out despite compelling evidence are currently threatening to take the CPS to court over with the End Violence Against Women and Girls Coalition.
To put that into perspective, here are some more figures of note. Some 85,000 women in England and Wales experience sexual violence every single year. Of those women, only 10-15 per cent ever report their attack to the police. And of these women last year, 98.3 per cent of those cases never made it to court.
In short: men are raping women and almost always getting away with it. The real crisis here? Rape has, in a sense, all but been decriminalised.
Secondly, it feeds into the alarming narrative that false accusations of sexual assault are commonplace. According to CPS stats, false allegations of rape are “serious but rare”, making up just 0.62 per cent of all rape cases. Based on the best data we have available to us, the average adult man in England and Wales has a 0.00021281 per cent chance of being falsely accused of sexual assault in a year.
This brilliant statistical analysis by Channel 4 estimates that on average, men in England and Wales are 230 times more likely to be raped themselves than they are to be falsely accused of rape.
Thirdly is the reality that not being charged with an offence, or not being found guilty after a trial, does not always mean that the accused did not commit the assault in question.
A criminal trial involves a jury believing beyond all reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty – it is down to the prosecution to evidence this guilt, it is not down to the defence to prove that a defendant is innocent. Due to widely held stereotypes about what a victim of sexual violence should look, sound and behave like – as well as the numerous issues with evidencing consent – the decisions juries make variously reflect the truth. The decisions the CPS make on charging again tends to consider how they feel the jury may be swayed. It does not concern whether they believe the perpetrator attacked someone or not.
Add the aforementioned points to this heavy fact, and we can see, quite clearly, who this system is truly weighted towards.
To me, as a survivor among the 98.3 per cent who never received justice, a Women’s Equality Party candidate determined to change this, and a rational human being, Sir Cliff’s campaign is a self-centred misfire that seeks special treatment for the very few while overlooking the injustices faced by hundreds and thousands of this country’s most vulnerable citizens.
Imagine what his privilege could do if he committed to reform for the whole system, to make it fairer for everyone, rather than simply seeing himself, with his fame and his millions, as the victim of a "false reporting" epidemic that just doesn’t exist