As I came into Parliament last Thursday, I swung by the newspaper stand to take a brief look at the headlines. ‘Oxford Union president, 21, arrested on suspicion of rape and attempted rape,’ said one. My heart sank. A photo of the beaming Oxford Union president, Ben Sullivan, dominated the front page in his swanky dinner jacket. He looked as if he had the world before him — until, that is, the police knocked on his door, warrant in hand. ‘Are you Ben Sullivan?’ they would have asked. The long, lonely journey to the police station would have followed, leading him in the opposite direction to his ambitions.
I should know. A similar journey took me from my home to Preston police station in the early hours of 4 May last year. I could guess exactly what Ben was feeling. He was released without charge on police bail — but even if this goes no further, his name is now indelibly linked to rape. Anyone who searched online for him will find these lurid accusations immediately — but struggle to find out that he was released without charge.
There was another story in the papers recently, a ‘before and after’ photo of Freddie Starr. The comedian looked a broken man. He had been arrested four times by the Jimmy Savile squad, as part of so-called Operation Yewtree. It took two years for the Crown Prosecution Service to conclude that there was ‘insufficient evidence’ to warrant his prosecution. He was, in theory, free. But the whole affair had kept him in a virtual prison, the same one to which I was confined in the last year. He may have been given back his freedom, but the ordeal has cost him his health — as it cost me my career.
Some young men who are wrongly accused try to take on new identities and rebuild their lives. This is what happened to Peter Bacon, falsely accused of rape after a one-night stand. It took a jury just 45 minutes to acquit him. ‘A load of doors are closed to me because of this,’ he said, ‘even though I’ve done nothing wrong.’ He decided to change his name by deed poll and emigrate. A rather extreme reaction, but having been through the experience I can understand it. I spoke to the comedian Jim Davidson during my days under this hateful suspicion, and he told me, ‘I know where you are. Every time you are not doing something else you are thinking of this,’ and he was right. In the darker and most lonely moments, the mind turns to even more drastic measures.
The allegations against me surfaced over a bank holiday. A news vacuum rewarded me with eight minutes every half hour on Sky that Sunday. The newspapers diligently pored over as much fine detail as was available. One old university friend informed me that I even made page two of his Vietnamese daily. The only thing not given publicity was the name of those alleging criminal activity. Since 1976 the complainants have been given lifetime anonymity — which was intended to grant accusers the same anonymity given to the accused. That was, alas, repealed in 1988.
In theory, police do not name the individuals concerned. On the record, it’s always ‘a 72-year-old man’ who is arrested — but the press is given the nod, so that the public is in no doubt who’s in the dock. The likes of Freddie Starr, Jimmy Tarbuck and Matthew Kelly are thrown to the wolves, even if, as in all three of those cases, no prosecution is pursued. As with them, so with many other less famous men who are wrongly accused — yet, in this digital age, find themselves permanently linked to heinous crimes.
The solution is obvious: anonymity for those accused of rape, not just the accusers. This sensible plan was even in the original coalition agreement in 2010: the two parties agreed to ‘extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants’. But this was dropped (it later emerged that, in the heat of the negotiations, both the Tories and the Liberal Democrats believed it was the other’s idea). It hardly amounts to censorship: the law, as it stands now, virtually prohibits any robust discussion of cases once arrests have been made, even terrorist plots. This is observed even in the digital age. So why not extend this? It would stop people’s lives being ruined.
One answer is that having the accused’s name plastered all over the press will encourage victims to come forward. This happened in the case of the ‘black cab rapist’, John Worboys. After he was first arrested six years ago, several more women came forward to disclose that he had attacked them. I certainly see the benefit of this — there is a case for waiving anonymity when a suspect is charged. But not when they are arrested but released without charge, as the president of the Oxford Union has been.
Five years ago, the Labour government asked Baroness Stern to conduct a review into the treatment of rape complaints. The case for defendants’ anonymity, she said, needed further debate. A few months (and a new government) later and more debate was promised by Sir George Young, the Leader of the House. Lives were being wrecked by rape complaints, he said, and government would conduct a ‘sensitive analysis of the options and implications before we bring any proposals to Parliament’. No proposals came forward.
It is time, surely, to debate this properly. Several options can be investigated — from anonymity until charge to until trial or even until conviction. I am fully aware of the downsides to this, but I have tasted the bitterness of publicity and believe that it should be accorded an equal weight of recognition.