National Treasure

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...ensuring abuse victims come forward

National Treasure, the Channel 4 drama starring Robbie Coltrane and Julie Walters, has shone a light on allegations of historic sexual abuse.

With the drama focussing on so-called ‘fishing’ of witnesses, which is the name given to leaking the name of an accused abuser in order to find more alleged victims, the question of anonymity of the accused has once again made its way into the public eye.

Anonymity For The Accused

National Treasure is not the only factor causing a debate on whether alleged abusers should receive anonymity, as Sir Cliff Richard, Paul Gambaccini, and MP Nigel Evans – all of whom have faced allegations of historic sexual abuse – have recently joined together to campaign for media anonymity for those accused of sex crimes.

Some of those accused of historic abuse have claimed that there is a ‘witch hunt’ against alleged abusers, while others claim that – regardless of the outcome of the case – the reputation of those accused will never be repaired.

On the other hand, survivor groups highlight that press coverage can empower other alleged victims who previously felt too scared or nervous to speak out.

The first episode of National Treasure depicts how a police investigation into allegations of historic rape was leaked to the press, prompting a second alleged victim to come forward with a further allegation of sexual abuse.

Critics are praising the show’s opening hour as being “real to core” and express that everything, from the police investigation to the media coverage of the allegations, was accurately depicted.

CPS Guidelines

After a similar debate raged in 2013, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published guidelines on how prosecutors approach child sexual abuse cases.

These guidelines placed an emphasis on protecting alleged victims of abuse and ensuring that they can feel safe and secure coming forward and giving evidence.

At the same time, the CPS ensured that investigations are taken on their individual merit, with myths, stereotypes, and personal pre-conceptions are taken out of the equation when considering allegations of sexual abuse, whether these allegations are historic or ongoing.

Peter Garsden, Head of Abuse Law at Simpson Millar, explains how the emphasis in any conversation about historic abuse should focus on protecting alleged victims, as these levels of serious allegations are not taken lightly by police forces:

“The police will not proceed with an investigation unless there is some merit in the evidence that they have collected and it is important to remember that even when an investigation has begun the police themselves are cautious about revealing the identity of the accused – it is often the press who discover the information and place it in the public domain.”

“National Treasure should be a springboard for a wider conversation; however it is the language that is used in historic sexual abuse cases that should be addressed first.”

“The term ‘fishing’ carries overtures of looking speculatively for something which probably does not exist, in the faint hope that something will appear on the end of the fisherman’s hook. This is a dangerously loaded expression, not suited to investigating signs of abuse in childhood.”

“In instances where the name of the accused is revealed by the press, it can encourage other supportive witnesses to come forward. This is not ‘fishing’ for evidence but the natural course of inquiry and investigations that the police and prosecutors would be expected to carry out.”

“Ultimately, there has to be a consideration of the mental state of alleged victims, who were likely to be vulnerable when their abuse happened. Some abuse survivors have had to live with their experiences for decades and can develop mental health problems as a result.

“For many victims, seeing others bravely speaking out against their alleged abuser can help them unload their pain and process their horrific experience.”

“As is the case with all aspects of the law, balance is required but offering alleged abusers anonymity could cause some victims to continue suffering in silence.”

Written by Peter Garsden

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