Anybody following the news in recent weeks could hardly have failed to have been aware of Michael le Vell/Turner’s court case in which the Coronation Street actor was accused of 19 counts of rape and sexual assault on a child from the age of six over an eight year period.
Le Vell was of course found not guilty by a jury at Manchester Crown Court on September the 10, but from the moment he was arrested nearly two years earlier he was under intense media scrutiny due to his celebrity and of course the nature of the charges.
The case and the attendant publicity has reignited the debate that sometimes follows such cases posing the view that people (mainly men) accused of sex crimes should be afforded anonymity until the court case or as some would have it a guilty verdict.
It’s not something I had previously given too much attention to but my closeness to this case as former colleague, friend and now as a working journalist gave me a unique insight in the whole equation.
We have rightly in my view consigned sex crimes especially against children and vulnerable people to a special level of disgust within our society.
Many people might enjoy a drink with an ex offender even somebody who had previously been convicted of a killing.
Few would admit to any form of contact with a serial sex offender or a paedophile, possibly because unlike other crimes (even non sex crime murder) once they are committed and assuming the person who committed the act has paid their dues to society and attempting to make a fresh start are seen as ‘done with’.
Conversely paedophilia is probably correctly viewed as an illness, a permanent condition that is a perverted condition, that will compel a person to continue offending or seeking to offend.
The victims being our dearest treasure – our children.
In order that victims may be encouraged to come forward with their complaints we rightly provide anonymity to them.
There was a time as I understand it prior to 1976, when the accused was also given anonymity.
I have vague memories of reading lurid accounts of sex offence trial reports which would read thus: “Shortly after Miss Y rejected the strange smelling wine from the glass Mr X had offered her, Mr X alledgedly then took Miss Y by the arm before pushing her down forcefully on the sofa.”
All a little absurd but it did draw the sensationalist sting out of the reporting tale and it meant that if the accused was acquitted then that person could walk from the court and continue with his or her life without the ongoing scepticism of their innocence by the public.
The lingering suggestion of ‘no smoke without fire’ has dogged many people who have walked away with not guilty verdicts in sex cases and Le Vell /Turner will be no different.
Currently there is a massive amount of sympathy for him from the general public in recognition of what he has been thorough during the past two years as an innocent man.
He was suspended from his job and so his earnings were severely curtailed, banned from any communication with children younger than 16 without supervision, which in effect banned him from seeing his own children.
Le Vell was also banned from travelling abroad where at least his lesser celebrity there might have afforded him some peace.
He was left to be contained in a self imposed ghetto to ensure his security.
But will that empathy be there for him in 6, 10 or 18 months time?
I doubt it, certainly not to the same level and given time there will always be people who will use the accusations against him negatively the “no smoke without fire” brigade.
In a just and fair society that should not be the case, though in a way the one sided reporting that is the result of journalists not being able to report any evidence that may identify the victim compounds the prospect for that happening.
This was certainly the case in Le Vell /Turner’s recent trial, reading the daily court bulletins of evidence, anybody could be forgiven for thinking that the reporting was either biased unfavourably against Le Vell or he was hopelessly guilty.
Neither was the case of course it was just that much evidence that would have countered the evidence of his guilt could not be published for fear of identifying the victim.
Anonymity for the accused would also ensure that the jurors would arrive at court with their minds clear of any preconceptions of the trial based on prejudices they may hold about a particular person their fame, job or status.
Jurors would be able to base their judgment of guilt more plainly on the evidence unencumbered by confusion about the pre trial reporting which short of anything solid to report compensates by lurid reporting on what accused did or did not do and with who in the run up to the trial.
Campaigners against reviewing the laws on anonymity for those accused of sex offences often cite the safety of the victims not naming the accusser would increase the security and anonymity of the victim even further.
Why? because under the present system anonymity is only one half of the equation and leaves the identity of the victim open to wreckless guessing or dogged detective work by any number of people with too much time on their hands and access to a social media account.
As we know that many sex offences are allegations of crimes committed within groups known to each other, families, friends or work colleagues, then it is easy to extrapolate from the identity of the accused that the victim could be a wife, nephew, niece, son, daughter, cousin or work colleague.
Releasing the age and sex of the victim and timeline of the offences gives further clues as to the victim’s identity.
Currently it is a very imperfect system even in the desired function of maintaining the anonymity of victims.
Providing joint anonymity to victim and accused would give the victim further security of a lasting anonymity whatever the verdict and fairness for a just outcome to the accused in the event of a not guilty verdict. Ends.