Ulrika's nasty little business

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The Independent Online

Another triumph for the media in this country: the television presenter who was named and shamed last year – accused of raping Ulrika Jonsson and sexually assaulting several other women – is to be told by the Crown Prosecution Service that he will not face criminal charges. Actually, I should say former TV presenter, for one of the consequences of the lurid allegations was that the man lost his job. The decision not to charge him, after a Scotland Yard investigation into one allegation of rape and two of indecent assault, is good news for the man at one level, in that he will not face the ordeal of a trial. But it also means that he will have neither the opportunity to challenge his accusers' claims in court nor the satisfaction of an acquittal.

Human nature being what it is, how can he ever escape the assumption – based on nothing more substantial than the old adage that there is no smoke without fire – that there is something unsavoury about his relations with women? That is one of the reasons why, although his identity is widely known, I am not going to name him in this column; the fact that we all know who he is does not invalidate the principle that people should not be exposed in this way unless, of course, they have been charged and ordered to appear in a court of law. This situation is just about the worst possible outcome for everyone: for the individuals involved in the case, for any woman who is hesitating about reporting a rape, and for British justice.

From the beginning, one piece of appalling behaviour was used to justify the next. First there was Jonsson (below), claiming in her autobiography to have been date-raped and put in hospital by an unidentified man 15 years ago, even though she had never reported the alleged assault to the police. Then there was the journalist Matthew Wright, who named her alleged assailant during a live broadcast on Channel 5. That in turn gave the green light to the tabloids, which found more than a dozen women who were willing to provide details of their own encounters with the man, without putting their names to the allegations.

Quite why any woman would imagine this was the appropriate place to air claims of such gravity is hard to fathom. The tabloid press is the last bastion of the coy circumlocutions that used to be a feature of mildly pornographic novels in the 1960s, exhibiting an attitude to sex composed of prurience, embarrassment and lubricious excitement in equal parts. Constitutionally incapable of mentioning the word "penis", the Sun reported an occasion in the back of a limousine when the man allegedly "got his manhood out and whacked it" into a woman's hand. It is not exactly the language of forensics, lending a cartoon flavour to what sounds like a shocking and unpleasant experience – if it happened, which is the very thing that's now in doubt.

Sexual assault is much too serious a subject to be treated like this, and tabloid hacks make little attempt to verify such claims, simply reporting them as fact. In the quest for salacious detail, the line between consensual and non-consensual sex is blurred, with both types of encounter presented for readers' titillation. Meanwhile Jonsson has neither named her alleged assailant nor spoken to the police, placing a question mark over her judgement in starting what she must have known would turn into a tabloid feeding frenzy. If she feels that an innocent man has been named by mistake, she has done nothing to clear up the misconception, adding to the difficulties he faces in restoring his reputation.

This sordid saga has taken place at a time when the conviction rate for rapes reported to the police has dropped to 7.5 per cent – fewer than one in ten. There can be no doubt at all that the criminal justice system has failed women, nor that most of us feel completely unprotected by the law. Even if that does not worry MPs, judges and barristers – and there is certainly some evidence that it does – they have now been given an awful warning about what happens when allegations of sexual assault are forced into alternative channels.

A man's career is in ruins, the credibility of his accusers has been called into question, and most of us have absolutely no idea what really happened. The courts in this country are flawed, but they are the only defence we have against trial by media.