REPLY: I am not a rape apologist

Morwenna Jones 12 May 2014

On Wednesday night, as I struggled with Medieval Poetry, I received a message from my editor.  It was asking me to write a piece on press ethics in light of the arrest of Oxford Union President, Ben Sullivan.  I was asked not to focus too much on Sullivan and, instead, to look at the behaviour of the media more widely.  I agreed and wrote it.  

Since then, I’ve been praised for my ‘wise words’ and a ‘brilliant article’ but also described as ‘dismissive’, ‘writing crap’ and depicted as a ‘rape apologist’.  The latter has all been mainly by Cuntry Living of which I am, ironically, a member.  At the time of writing, the article has gone from 260 to 300 shares on Facebook; it may not be baby animals wrapped up as burritos, but it has elicited some strong opinions from people from both Oxford and Cambridge.

As my father says to me, “if you’re going to stick your head above the parapet, expect to get shot” and I do.  However, there are a few things I would like to address.  These are, namely, the accusations that I am advocating a policy of anonymity for rape suspects and that I am attacking student and national press for reporting Sullivan’s arrest.

Firstly, however, I would like to take the opportunity to say that I am not a ‘rape apologist’.  Nowhere in my original article did I say that rape is infrequent, misreported, over-reported, not a big deal or excusable.  I refer to it as ‘one of the worst crimes humanity can commit’.   Moreover, I am fully aware that only 3% or less of rape accusations are false and that misleading statistics on convictions and arrests are a huge problem, not least here in Cambridge.

I simply asked ‘what if?’  As the case stands, Sullivan has been released on bail having been called in for questioning. He has not been convicted and the case still has a long way to go. I am not denying the victim’s experience by saying that Sullivan is innocent; I’m saying that he may be innocent.

Moreover, guilt or innocence aside, he is not yet a formal ‘defendant’ as he has not been charged. If you are going to ruin someone’s life by publicly defaming them, then I believe that you should have enough evidence to do so. I do not believe that any charged ‘defendant’ should have their identity protected. I said that this was ‘an option’. It is an option some people have vehemently campaigned for, including Maura McGowan, the lawyer I mention in the original article.

Would it cause less trauma for those who are accused of rape? Yes, undoubtedly, whether you think they deserve less trauma or not; but if we balance the importance of protecting the identity of individuals not formally charged with the importance of protecting the safety of the public and the opportunity identification provides for other victims to come forward, this becomes a less viable ‘option’.  

I touched upon the example of the Jimmy Saville case to illustrate this in my piece on Friday. It was BBC Newsnight that revealed Saville’s paedophilia after an investigation on their show Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Saville.  By the time sixteen days had passed after the show was broadcast, four hundred victims had come forward.

It’s an extreme example and, admittedly, it’s an example featuring someone guilty of rape, rather than someone suspected of rape, but it nevertheless proves that publicly denouncing an offender, be they alleged or not, can bring forth more evidence to guarantee a conviction.

Regarding reports of the arrest, what I object to is not the fact that it’s been reported but how it’s been reported.  The reports of Ben Sullivan’s arrest have been almost unanimously biased.  Most pay little attention to his arrest and accusation and, instead, set themselves the challenge of portraying Sullivan in the most repulsive way possible.

Few of these make any references to the letter Sullivan published in Cherwell, in which he did not make any reference to the accusations of sexual assault but instead, apologised for his behaviour.  In this letter, which has since been taken down, he also crucially revealed that his decision to sue a student newspaper with Union Society money was influenced by the advice of his Senior Treasurer. Not to mention that the ‘Banter Squadron’ isn’t even a real drinking society.  Not that that matters because little of this has featured anywhere in the press.

Rather, national newspapers have lowered themselves to the level of petty student politics.  The only piece of information they have reported that is in any way relevant to the accusation is his membership of the ‘the Banter Squadron’, although few make the link between that and rape, misogynist or even lad culture.

The rest of the information appears to be a result of a competition to be as biased as possible.  The Daily Mail and The Telegraph thought that Sullivan’s affluent background in the upper echelons of Kensington was somehow relevant to his arrest, whilst even The Independent thought that the feud between Sullivan and the Union’s librarian pertained to the topic, and showcased the librarian Kostas Chryssanthopoulos’ statement that “to serve under this President has been the biggest regret of my time in this Society and I want nothing more to do with him”.  

Only The Huffington Post has reported the arrest without mentioning these petty details.  They have recognised that the reality is that neither Sullivan’s transgression at the Oxford Union Society, nor his ‘privileged’ background are of any importance to the accusation of rape.  Indeed, by reporting the latter, the majority of the media has demeaned the topic by forging a damaging link between Sullivan’s privileged background and the crime he has committed.  

If Sullivan is guilty, do I think it’s right for this information to have circulated around the country?  No.  It may interest students at the University of Oxford but, beyond that, it is of absolutely no importance to the rest of the country whether he lives in Kensington or not.  If Sullivan is innocent?  That goes without saying.  Public humiliation at one’s own university is bad enough, even if it is deserved, but a one-sided presentation of his actions at the Union Society did not warrant exposure to the rest of the nation.

This was the crux of my previous piece.  Not that Sullivan was innocent, not that rape suspects should remain anonymous, but that the media have reported the story in an unfair manner.  They have exposed details irrelevant to the main story for no purpose other than to maximise scandal.  I also intended only partly to examine the case of Ben Sullivan.  But, when it comes to the twenty-one year old’s arrest it should be noted that, in the eyes of the press, Sullivan is the perfect source of gossip. In the eyes of the law however, Sullivan is ‘innocent until proven guilty’.  

You may not stand by this principle.  Plenty of people clearly don’t, but regardless of what conclusion you come to, it should not be based on a brutal, poorly reported character assassination.  

It should be based on an unbiased report of the facts. Facts that have not yet been made fully clear.