Bernard Hogan-Howe is right: justice for victims of rape demands the truth

Some of us think he’s right that courts must test the veracity of the claims

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 14 February 2016 19:16 GMT
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe
Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe (PA)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe is looking haggard and miserable. Sure, he has money and status, but the job hangs around his neck, causing fresh wounds every time he makes a move. Last week he was Humphried on the BBC’s Today programme, scolded by high Tories and slammed by unswerving, livid feminists. They ganged up on him, but for different and opposing reasons. Unexpectedly, I – a feminist – felt for the commissioner, cold though he seems and out of sync with modern London.

The sorry tale goes back to November 2014, when the force embarked on a high-risk investigation of historic rape allegations made against some of the most powerful men in the land, including D-Day veteran Lord Bramall and the late Leon Brittan. The key witness was a man known as “Nick”, who made claims of organised rapes and even murders around Westminster. Operation Midland was set up to examine these allegations.

Detective Superintendent Kenny McDonald was one of those leading the operation. He decided that Nick’s story was “credible and true”. He was reflecting the national mood and playing by new rules. Her Majesty’s Inspection of Constabulary had forcefully advised that a “victim should always be believed”. After many months of investigations, police found no evidence of sexual abuse by Bramall and Brittan was cleared of rape alleged by a woman. Inevitably perhaps, establishment figures are unimpressed by the lack of deference. They say the police are being duped by deluded or devious complainants and chasing after gentleman suspects with too much vigour.

As we know, those who suffer rape and sexual violence often do not come forward because they fear that their testimonies will be doubted, their characters besmirched. These fears are not fantasies. Though more men and women do now report crimes, many do not.

In England and Wales, it is estimated that nine out of 10 rapes go unreported, and only 5.7 per cent of rape cases end in a conviction; 30 per cent of victims are teenagers. Child abuse in families is the dirtiest, most buried secret in our country. But we are making some progress: the subject is no longer taboo and, with better awareness and procedures, skilled policing and zero tolerance, we are in a better place than we were 10 years ago.

After Jimmy Savile’s grotesque sexual crimes, police forces and other institutions had to stop shielding the famous and start protecting alleged victims. The culture of disbelief and secrecy changed. Stuart Hall, Rolf Harris and Max Clifford would not have been arrested, tried and convicted without these profound shifts.

Now there appears to be a noisy revolt against the guidelines. Hogan-Howe had to respond to the objectors. He accepted that McDonald’s words vindicated claims before due process and then said something eminently sensible: a good investigator should have an impartial mindset and “test the accuracy of the allegations and evidence with an open mind”. Alleged rape victims should be treated with empathy and encouraged to talk, but still have to be tested in court before they are believed.

I do not understand why this position is creating a feminist uprising. Vera Baird, a politician, feminist and lawyer, is now the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria. She fears that “thousands of victims of sexual abuse have been denied justice through the attitude [Hogan-Howe] now advocates”. Hogan-Howe has also repeatedly been accused of blaming victims. How so?

These reactions are as ill-considered as those by the establishment. They remind me of a disquieting hour I spent with the feminist Andrea Dworkin a few years back. She wanted to talk to me about Muslim masculinity, expecting, perhaps, that I could deliver to her a neat sermon that would fit into her world view. She was quirky, sharp, never the harridan she was made out to be – but, when it came to rape, she could not break out of a windowless room filled with red mist: all sons were rapists or exploiters, and all females innocents.

When a girl or woman cries rape, she said, it is always true. But people can’t deal with that, she added. That seemed to me both disingenuous and convenient: it fitted neatly into the framework of theoretical feminism. The criminal justice system can’t simply fall in line with gender demands. It has to get through chaos and conflicting narratives to get to the truth.

Nina Burrowes, an expert in the psychology of sexual assault, trains police, lawyers and judges. She believes “things have changed and victims are much more likely to get a sympathetic ear. But there isn’t a direct line between compassion and justice. Victims go to survivor organisations for therapeutic support. When they come to the police, they want justice, which means they want a good investigation.” Justice isn’t served by pre-empting judgment or believing a witness without testing the evidence.

Hogan-Howe must feel beleaguered; his contract has been extended for only another year. On Tuesday, he will have to apologise to Lady Brittan for not informing her husband before he died about one false claim. He needs to know that some of us think he’s right to continue with the VIP investigations; and right, too, when he says that rape victims must be seen and heard by sympathetic officers, but that courts must test the veracity of the claims. It will be another bad week for him. I don’t like the man, but this mortification and humbling is unfair.

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