Women's groups complain to BBC over its coverage of CPS false allegations report
13 March 2013
We have sent the following complaint to the BBC about the BBC Newsbeat coverage of the CPS report.
A response from Newsbeat is included below, and then a further email we have sent in reply to that. We note that by late afternoon on 13 March a small amendment was made to the original Newsbeat article - referring to false allegations as "unusual" rather than "common". We have also sent our complaint to others.
We believe that such misreporting of issues including false allegations and anonymity for suspects contributes to a culture where women and girls do not want to report to the police.
13 March 2013
Dear BBC Heads of News,
We are writing to complain about the BBC Newsbeat report on today’s (13 March) CPS report on false allegations of rape and domestic violence.
We represent more than 60 specialist organisations working to end violence against women and girls in all its forms, and a national network of Rape Crisis centres who work directly with survivors of sexual violence.
The news report by Declan Harvey and Anisa Subedar, which at time of writing is still on the Newsbeat website and the main BBC news website, is an appalling misrepresentation of the CPS report and fails to reach very basic standards of good journalism. It comprehensively misrepresents the findings of the new CPS report, which is particularly disturbing as Newsbeat is a news outlet for younger people and young women are subject to particularly high rates of sexual violence – victims considering whether or not to report will be among your readers and listeners.
The BBC report says in its first paragraph the figures on false allegations “…show how common the problem is…” which is precisely what the CPS report (and DPP Keir Starmer when interviewed on the Today Programme this morning) do not say. In commenting on the report Keir Starmer says, “This report shows that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are very rare… From the cases we have analysed, the indication is that it is therefore extremely rare that a suspect deliberately makes a false allegation of rape or domestic violence purely out of malice. It is within this context that the issue should be viewed, so that myths and stereotypes around these cases are not able to take hold.”
The BBC report says that some have called for anonymity for those accused of sexual offences but says the government has ruled this out – but it fails to say why the government ruled this out, which is in fact that a consideration of the proposal in 2010 found “insufficient reliable empirical evidence” on which to base such a change (House of Commons Library Note, February 2012).
Your reporters meanwhile go on to include a case study of a woman prosecuted for a false allegation, “…jailed for two years after accusing three men of raping her. Police say she made the claim because she was embarrassed she'd slept with them in one night.” Whereas the CPS report finds that in a large proportion of cases of false allegations, “…a significant number of these cases involved young, often vulnerable people, and sometimes even children. Around half of the cases involved people aged 21 and under, and some involved people with mental health difficulties.” Your reporters’ choice and description of this case study instead reinforces a dangerous myth about rape – that women make it up after regretting consensual sex. The evidence conclusively does not show this. The fact is that the majority of actual rapes go unreported – not least due to the perpetuation of myths about rape and women’s and girls’ fears that they will not be believed.
Your reporters go on to make a point about allegations staying on a police record for some months, but again, like the anonymity point above, they fail to say why this is. Allegations remain on a police file, which is not a criminal record and does not show up in record checks (also not clarified), because in the past when allegations have been made against men like Ian Huntley and Jimmy Savile among others, police officers handling further separate allegations were unable to find this information and potentially detect a pattern.
Your news reporting does BBC journalistic standards a great disservice - it reads as if the reporters read the CPS press release quickly and arbitrarily chose what story they felt like writing, disregarding the actual findings of an authoritative report which is part of ongoing CPS work to improve convictions rates for rape and other forms of violence against women.
The BBC is still under a spotlight for its failings with regard to Jimmy Savile and a culture of sexism and sexual harassment, and not least the editorial decisions that were made at Newsnight when evidence based on testimony from “just the women” (Peter Rippon) was dismissed as inadequate. We hope that all your news staff are receiving comprehensive training on myths around abuse of women and girls and also how the media’s perpetuation of rape myths is believed to contribute to low reporting rates (Alison Saunders, CPS). A joint report by several of the signatories of this letter published last November, ‘Just the Women’, highlights with examples how poor news reporting on abuse of women and girls contributes to a climate of victims not being believed and not getting justice – it is available on all our websites.
We want to see your news article comprehensively amended or removed soon. We hope the reporters and editor concerned will receive some training on myths and facts about violence against women and girls.
We look forward to your reply.
End Violence Against Women Coalition
Rape Crisis England & Wales
Response from Newsbeat Duty Editor on the afternoon of 13 March 2013:
Thank you for your feedback regarding the Newsbeat story on false rape allegations.
This was a story commissioned to specifically examine what it was like to be falsely accused of rape. To help contextualise the story we reported on a 17 month study carried out by the Crown Prosecution Service which set out to establish how common such false rape allegations were. In the past we have published many stories highlighting the issues surrounding rape and domestic violence, specifically targeted at our core audience of 15 to 24 year olds. Please find links for two such stories below:
On this occasion we chose to look at those young people who are occasionally wrongly accused. I do not agree we misrepresented the study, or published an article that might somehow put people off reporting such serious crimes.
In the fourth line of our story we quote the Director of Public Prosecutions Kier Starmer who says false rape allegations are ‘serious but rare’. In the accompanying video he makes the same statement within the first fifty seconds. Whilst our story hears from a young man who says he was wrongly accused, we ensure that rape victims are given a voice by running quotes from Dianne Whitfield from Rape Crisis. We also feature a video which contains a Nottinghamshire Police spokeswoman who says their starting point is always to believe allegations of serious sexual assault. She goes on to explain how thoroughly they investigate both sides of any allegation. Far from downplaying the seriousness of rape we finish our article by publishing the phone numbers of advice lines for people who believe they may have been the victim of rape or domestic violence.
On the day this story was broadcast we received a big response from our young audience, and we openly invited feedback on this challenging topic. Whilst some people did say our reporting of false accusations was damaging to real rape victims, on our facebook page Gina described false accusations as “disgusting”, and Stuart told us that he felt the bigger problem was that these claims make life harder for real rape victims to be taken seriously. On Twitter Rick told us "Allegations of rape not only waste police time but wreck the lives of those accused! And John wrote on Twitter... "My 23 year old nephew was recently accused of rape. He then killed himself. The girl did it again to another guy."
I’m sure you appreciate the BBC is here to report both sides of a story.
We replied to this email as follows:
I find your reply inadequate. I could write at greater length, and may do so later, but I must dispute you on a basic point of news and journalistic practice here - you say you commissioned the story to examine what it's like to be falsely accused. That's all very well for a feature or for broader current affairs etc etc. Choose your date. But - the NEWS story today was the CPS report, an authoritative report which you have systematically misrepresented. You can't take an important report like this and then decide that you want to shoehorn a very different story into it. Have you read the CPS report and listened to Keir Starmer's interviews today? He says every time that this report is part of long-term CPS work to improve prosecutions for rape, and that part of this is about exposing myths including that false allegations are common. You have written up the CPS report on the day it was published by using these very myths - such as in the case study and your top para statement that false allegations are "common". That is emphatically not what the report finds.
It is also not 'balance' to simply include a short Rape Crisis quote and phone number. The quotes from your listeners below in fact show that you have succeeded in inflaming the view that false allegations are common and need addressing. Keir Starmer said today that in fact the report finds there is no need to change current guidance on dealing with them.
If you are a news programme you report on the news - you do not choose from the 'news' like it is a convenient menu for you to "contextualise the story". Today's news was fairly straightforward. I did not imagine a BBC newsroom worked on the basis of sitting waiting for half-matching hooks to tell a story it decided long ago it wanted to tell.