Backlash Over Law Commission Proposal to Restrict Journalists Covering Rape Trials

The Society of Editors has criticised a proposal by the Law Commission to restrict journalists from attending rape trials in England and Wales.
Backlash Over Law Commission Proposal to Restrict Journalists Covering Rape Trials
A model poses as a complainant waiting to seen by a doctor at a specialist rape clinic in Kent, England on Jan. 31, 2007. (Gareth Fuller/PA)
Chris Summers

Proposals by the Law Commission to restrict access to rape and sexual assault trials for journalists have been greeted with horror by the Society of Editors.

The Law Commission is conducting a review of the trial process for prosecutions of rape and other sexual offences in England and Wales—with submissions due by the end of September.

One of the proposals the commission has put forward is to automatically exclude members of the public and all but a single journalist from the courtroom when rape complainants are giving evidence.

The proposal has been drawn up in an attempt to reduce the anxiety felt by rape complainants during the trial process.

'Devastating Effect on ... Coverage'

But the Society of Editors said it would have a “devastating effect on the future coverage of sexual offence cases” and was contrary to the fundamental principle of open justice.

The proposal has also been opposed by the Crime Reporters' Association and by a rape victim.

Ellie Wilson, 25, waived her right after Daniel McFarlane was convicted of raping her twice between December 2017 and February 2018.

Ms. Wilson told The Times more needed to be done to, “lift the veil of secrecy around courts” and she said she was opposed to the proposal.

She said: “Journalists do serve a useful purpose in court. They make sure people think about what they say ... because they will report on those details.”

Dawn Alford, the executive director of the Society of Editors, said, “As well as being granted anonymity for life, complainants in sexual offence cases can give evidence via video-link or through a pre-recorded interview and many also choose to give evidence from behind a screen in court whereby, in most courtrooms, this has the practical effect of them being entirely hidden from view."

“To therefore add additional and unnecessary restrictions and limitations on the media’s ability to be present in court when such evidence is being given seems entirely disproportionate and unlikely to have any notable effect on victims’ court experiences,” she added.

Ms. Alford added: “At a time when public confidence in the police and judicial system is already low, placing additional restrictions on the media’s ability to report on how decisions are made is likely to further reduce, rather than enhance, both the public’s confidence and the reporting of sexual offence cases more generally.”

Journalistic Lottery

The Society of Editors said the proposal was also impractical as there would be no fair way of holding a lottery to decide which journalist would be allowed to stay in court and there was no system in place to allow their copy to be checked and distributed to all media outlets who might be interested in the case.
The restriction of journalists from rape trials may also undermine the rights of those wrongly convicted of rape, such as Andrew Malkinson who spent 17 years in jail for a crime he did not commit.
 Andrew Malkinson outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on July 26, 2023. (Jordan Pettitt/PA via AP)
Andrew Malkinson outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on July 26, 2023. (Jordan Pettitt/PA via AP)
In July, Michael Naughton, a professor at the University of Bristol Law School, told The Epoch Times, a feminist lobby had been pushing a certain narrative—that too many guilty men were not being charged, and that, of those who were taken to trial, too many were being acquitted because juries believed in the so-called rape myths."

Professor Naughton said, "For the past 30 years there has been this slow but gradual erosion of all the safeguards that protect against wrongful convictions."

A Law Commission spokesperson said: “The Law Commission is reviewing the law on the use of evidence in sexual offences trials. It wants to improve how complainants are treated; make sure that defendants get a fair trial; and improve knowledge of consent and sexual harm."

“We appreciate the critical role the media play in reporting on sexual offences trials, and making sure that justice is done and seen to be done," they added.

The spokesperson said: “Complainants can already request to give evidence in private. We are consulting on making this easier for complainants and it will always be their choice whether to request, but this would continue to include an important exemption to allow the media to report the story."

“We are currently consulting with the public on all aspects of our project; we welcome all views on our proposals. Once we produce our final recommendations it will be for government to decide how to proceed,” they added.

Sean Parker, editor of False Allegations Watch, said he was opposed to the proposal.

He told the Epoch Times, "Having one court-approved reporter syndicating out their report to other media outlets on which to spin their narrative would lead to further degradation and confusion of what used to be known as he said/she said cases."

PA Media contributed to this report.