What merits the more severe penalty – tweeting abuse about an unconscious man who is unaware of it or publicly naming a victim of sexual violence?
Two days ago, yet another case involving abuse on social networking sites came to court and the outcome – paltry fines for a group of defendants – demonstrates the jaw-dropping inconsistency of the criminal justice system. The case also speaks volumes about hostile attitudes towards victims of sexual violence in this country.
In March this year, the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch during an FA Cup match at White Hart Lane. He was rushed to hospital in east London, where medical staff battled for hours to save his life. Muamba eventually recovered though not, sadly, to a point where he was able to return to playing football. On the afternoon of his collapse, a drunken student called Liam Stacey from South Wales mocked Muamba and posted “racially aggravated” abuse on Twitter. In no time, Stacey was arrested, charged and sentenced to 56 days in prison, as well as being banned from his course at Swansea University for the rest of the year. Stacey’s behaviour was callous and unthinking but even at the time the penalty seemed out of proportion to the damage he’d actually done.
The following month, the Wales and Sheffield United footballer Ched Evans was sent to prison for five years for a very nasty rape. His 19-year-old victim showed enormous courage when she reported the assault, which happened in a hotel room in Rhyl at the end of an evening when she had been drinking heavily. According to Nita Dowell, senior crown prosecutor in Wales, Evans “took advantage of a vulnerable woman who was in no fit state to consent to sexual activity. He did so knowingly and with a total disregard for her physical and emotional wellbeing”. Detective Chief Inspector Steve Williams said the victim had shown “a great deal of resilience and strength in difficult circumstances”.
But footballers are celebrities, and the court’s view of Evans’s criminal behaviour was certainly not shared by his friends and supporters. They rushed on to Twitter and Facebook to vent their rage, not against the man who’d let them and his club down so badly but against his victim. Unlike Muamba, who was in hospital and receiving the best medical care when Stacey abused him, the young woman in the Evans case was trying to recover from the gruelling experience of a rape trial. She was obviously vulnerable but the defendants didn’t care, using social networking sites to name her and abuse her as a “slut”, a “tramp” and a “whore”.
Rape victims are entitled to lifelong anonymity and nine individuals appeared in court on Monday, accused of publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case. District judge Andrew Shaw did not mince his words, telling the defendants at Prestatyn magistrates court that they had acted with “deliberate malice”. He said: “Your actions have revictimised this woman.” He imposed the maximum penalty on each of them, but that’s only a £624 fine.
If Stacey’s behaviour towards an unconscious Muamba merits a prison sentence, why is this offence treated so leniently? One of the tweets, posted by 26-year-old Paul Devine from Sheffield, not only named the woman but urged strangers to find her address. Surely, that’s intimidation? In court, Devine said he was angry because his team Sheffield United had just lost to MK Dons. Presumably, he thought the team would have played better with a convicted rapist in its ranks, but it’s hardly an excuse for what he did.
Holly Price, a 25-year-old biology teacher from Prestatyn, is another of the individuals who named the victim on Twitter. She retweeted a message which revealed the woman’s identity and added her own comment: “money-grabbing slut. poor little victim. WTF?” The defendants were sheepish in court and apologised, claiming they had no idea that naming a rape victim was a criminal offence. That doesn’t address the obvious point that it’s morally indefensible, whatever the law says.
What were these people thinking of? At a moment when the country is reeling under a torrent of accusations about child sexual abuse linked to Jimmy Savile, it’s instructive to get a glimpse into the thought processes of members of the public reacting to the outcome of a rape trial. Convictions are not easy to secure, as campaigners against sexual violence know very well, and, in this case, Evans had been found guilty and given a condign sentence. Yet blaming the complainant is so reflexive that the defendants simply ignored the verdict.
This is not the only instance of this kind of behaviour in recent history. The two women who have accused Julian Assange of rape and sexual assault have been hounded on the internet. Something similar happened to the woman who accused the former head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, of attempted rape in a New York hotel. The charges were dropped and the politician is now back in France, where he faces charges relating to a prostitution ring in Lille.
Abuse of women who say they’ve been raped is habitual, in other words, and the effect of social networking sites is to make it more overt. Over and over again, research shows that fear of being blamed acts as a deterrent when women are deciding whether to seek help or go to the police. In a survey carried out this year by the website Mumsnet, more than four-fifths of respondents who said they’d been raped did not report the attack, and over half gave embarrassment or shame as the reason. Another report, compiled for The Haven service for victims of assault in London, found that more than half of respondents would be too ashamed or embarrassed to go to the police.
This is why the offences committed in the Ched Evans case are worse, in my view, than Liam Stacey’s drunken abuse of Fabrice Muamba. I’m not in favour of sending more people to prison but I’d like to see heavier penalties for naming rape victims, perhaps in the form of community service with organisations that help victims of sexual violence. This “naming and shaming” of women who say they’ve been raped is a form of terrorism, and it has to stop.