This post first appeared on VICE UK
Life was pretty good for Mark Pritchard at the start of December. In his second term as the Tory MP for the Wrekin, with a 10,000 majority since the last election, the only thing most people knew him for was a famous incident in a corridor at the House of Commons where he told Speaker of the House John Bercow, "You are not fucking royalty, Mr. Speaker!"
On December 2 he was arrested for an alleged rape, but that still wasn't a big problem. Not until the Metropolitan Police sent a letter to John Bercow about the arrest (as Speaker of the House he's responsible for such things), reference to which ended up in a publicly available document. Then the press got ahold of it and, shortly after, Pritchard was arrested.
A month later, the police have dropped the investigation. Whatever happened or didn't happen, there was insufficient evidence to build any case. Pritchard is in the clear. But 2015 is an election year. Four short months from now, the MP will face the people of The Wrekin and face their own judgment on his guilt or innocence. Will it cost him votes? Will he lose his seat? Who knows.
Either way, Pritchard wants a review of the law. He believes it's unfair that his accuser has the right to remain anonymous, while defendants in these cases don't. "Of course she remains anonymous," he complained. "The law on anonymity does need to be reviewed and fairness does need to play a greater part in these cases."
It's all too easy to bash politicians these days, but is he right? Is Pritchard's situation unfair? Should people arrested for rape be given anonymity?
Weirdly, Pritchard almost got his wish in 2010. The freshly-baked coalition said in their agreement, "We will extend anonymity in rape cases to defendants." I say weirdly because the policy wasn't in either the Tory or Lib Dem manifestos. It sort of appeared out of nowhere, fully formed. It was dropped within a few months, which isn't surprising since it was the Tories who ended anonymity for defendants in the first place, under Thatcher back in 1988. The policy had only been in place for 12 years by then, and it was seen as a failure.
The idea sounds fair, but, ironically, could actually be bad for defendants. That sounds backward until you realize that our whole justice system is built on being open. We're suspicious of secret courts or secret police forces because, when you can't shine a light on what officials are doing, all kinds of abuse can happen. Being named may not be great for your reputation if you're famous, but in high-profile cases it actually gives you a lot of protection that you might not have if the people aren't even allowed to say that you've been arrested.
The public interest argument bears repeating, too. Imagine you live in Pritchard's constituency. Would you prefer to know that he was arrested on suspicion of rape? Do you believe that you're intelligent enough to deal with that information fairly? Well then. But where Pritchard and others might have a point is on whether the media report these cases fairly. Was it really necessary for the BBC to put a helicopter over Cliff Richard's house? Probably not. In fact, a court may be ruling on that question in the near future.
The third problem is power. In the kinds of cases with enough publicity to make anonymity an issue, the defendant is usually powerful and the accuser usually isn't. Often, powerful people are protected by walls of secrecy that are hard to break down—no one wants to be the first to speak out against them. In the words of the prosecutor in Rolf Harris's case, he was "too famous, too powerful, and his reputation made him untouchable." We saw the same with Jimmy Savile, Max Clifford, and other recent cases, where many victims only came forward once the name was in the public domain.
The truth is, false allegations are rare, and the damage isn't always that great. Michael Le Vell was found innocent, and returned to his job on Coronation Street shortly after. Craig Charles was cleared, and was back back making Red Dwarf a couple of years later. Even actual convictions don't seem to put the breaks on some celebrities' careers. Roman Polanski won an Oscar while a fugitive. Celebrities from Chris Brown to Charlie Sheen keep their place in the establishment in spite of domestic violence charges.
And then there's Ched Evans. The man was convicted of rape—found guilty by a unanimous jury—and yet, despite vehement petitioning from the general public, still appears to be in negotiations with clubs that will allow his return to a high-profile, highly-paid profession.
Naming public figures who have been arrested on rape allegations may inconvenience them, but history has shown that, with exposure, several others are brought to justice for very serious crimes.
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