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The urgent need to move from 'believe the victim' to 'question the allegation': Why language matters

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Language matters. It matters because the words or phrases that we use reflect how we think about social and legal issues and what we do, or don't do, or what we consent to be done in our name, in response to them, whether that be as individuals or as a society as a whole.

The phrase 'believe the victim', which relates to allegations of rape, child sexual abuse (CSA) or sexual offences more generally, is particularly problematic. It can, and does, lead to the false allegation and/or wrongful conviction and/or imprisonment of innocent victims who don't seem to matter.

Indeed, the rationale of 'believe the victim' is concerned only with obtaining convictions against sexual offenders; with increasing the statistics on convictions for sexual offences. In the rush to this end, proponents of the 'believe the victim' discourse have failed to give any thought or consideration at all to the reality of false allegations rape, CSA and other sexual offences. In so doing, the disciples of the 'believe the victim' mentality show a blindness and total moral indifference to the extensive range of harms caused to innocent victims of false allegations of alleged sexual offences, their families and society as a whole, because those falsely accused and wrongly convicted are done so in our name.

In consequence, such innocent victims can be conceptualised as mere collateral damage in an ideological war that has no interest in the truthfulness of such allegations, nor with whether justice is achieved, either in terms of the correct and rightful conviction of an alleged sex offender or the acquittal of an innocent victim of a false allegation and the bringing to justice of the individual making the false allegation.

The roots of 'believe the victim' can be traced to the Jimmy Savile Affair, which represented a key moment in the history of alleged child sexual abuse (CSA), specifically, and alleged sexual offences, generally, in terms of the inversion of the presumption of innocence for those accused of sexual offences.

Knighted for his charity work, somewhere in the region of 500 posthumous allegations of sexual abuse were made against the former DJ, television personality and hitherto 'national treasure' in 2012, which prompted a moral panic in society that exists to the present day about predatory sex offenders escaping justice.

A major problem is that the pendulum swung too far such that innocent victims became increasingly vulnerable to false allegations and the wrongful convictions that stem from them in the clamour by those leading the inquiry into Savile to bring all sex offenders to justice at all and any cost.

The joint report by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) and the NSPCC into the allegations of sexual abuse against Savile, for instance, was uncompromising in its approach. Entitled ‘Giving Victims a Voice’, even though Savile was never formally charged nor convicted for his alleged crimes, it was clear in its conviction that the alleged victims were victims who needed to be heard:

'...the allegations that have been made… paint a compelling picture of widespread sexual abuse by a predatory sex offender. We are therefore referring to them as ‘victims’ rather than ‘complainants’ and are not presenting the evidence they have provided as unproven allegations.'

It was the fallout from the Jimmy Savile Affair, then, and the drive to bring offenders to justice, that has seen a paradigm shift in police and prosecution responses to allegations of sexual abuse and assault making it even more likely that innocent victims will be falsely accused and wrongly convicted.

From a position of questioning the veracity of allegations as a safeguard to protect potentially innocent individuals from false allegations and wrongful convictions, the default position now is to believe alleged victims; moreover, to see complainants as victims at the point of complaint, unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary.

As this relates, specifically, to police practise, the College of Policing, the body which sets standards and guidance for police in England and Wales, emphasized that:

'…when an allegation is received, police should [now] believe this account and record it as a crime.'

Similarly, prosecutors are now mandated under the terms of the new ‘Guidelines on Prosecuting Cases of Child Sexual Abuse’ issued in 2013 (and revised in 2017) to work on the basis that those making allegations are victims, with prosecutors instructed to:

‘...guard against looking for “corroboration” of the victim’s account or using the lack of “corroboration” as a reason not to proceed with a case’.

These changes treat alleged sexual offences differently from every other type of alleged crime, allegations of theft, burglary or murder, for example, which require evidence to support allegations or convictions against individuals for such alleged offences. They invert the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof on the prosecution to prove its case against an accused beyond a reasonable doubt. And, they, therefore, undermine the legitimacy of prosecutions and convictions against alleged innocent victims of false allegations until the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof on the prosecution are restored in the area of alleged sexual offences.

It is against this background that this article calls for an urgent shift from 'believe the victim' to question the allegation in response to all allegations of sexual offences.

Crucially, to continue to use the phrase 'believe the victim', even to critique the concept, works to strengthen the prevailing dominant discourse. This signals the urgent need for an alternative counter discourse to be constructed and employed consistently around the more appropriate and desirable notion of 'question the allegation.'

By way of conclusion, the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'allegation' as:

'...a public statement that is made without giving proof, accusing somebody of doing something that is wrong or illegal.'

It defines 'victim' as:

'...a person who has been attacked, injured or killed as the result of a crime, a disease, an accident, etc.'

This leads to the following observations so that the language used with regard to alleged allegations of sexual offences from hereon uses the correct terminology:

  1. There is no place for uncorroborated allegations in the criminal justice system of a modern rule of law society with an expressed commitment to the rights of all individuals that is enshrined in enacted domestic and international human rights legislation; Witch hunts and arbitrary injustice are supposed to be phenomenon of the long and distant past.

  2. Working on the basis that the individual making the allegation is the victim is equally problematic as the individual accused may well be the victim of a false allegation.

  3. False allegations of sexual offences are also criminal offences, which strengthens, further, the urgent need to question all allegations and assume nothing in the quest for truth and justice.

By Michael Naughton

Dr Michael Naughton is the Founder and Director of Empowering the Innocent (ETI). He holds a Readership in Sociology and Law at the University of Bristol. Click here for more about Michael.

Please let us know if you think that there is a mistake in this article, explaining what you think is wrong and why. We will correct any errors as soon as possible.

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