Avoiding the big story

April 1, 2006

I've been trying to ignore the Louise Nicholas rape trial, but it's everywhere.  I've heard music DJs try to turn into into witty jokes on their shows, and I just grimace and change the station.

I'll state it honestly – I believe Mrs Nicholas.  I know things about this trial which I shouldn't, which have further solidified my discomfort and sadness.  To stumble across a front-page full page banner headline* roaring that the victim is lying, as in the NZ Herald earlier this week – it was like a slap in the face to me.  I can only imagine what it must have felt like to someone who has actually been the victim of a rape or sexual abuse, or indeed to Louise and those who care about her. 

I nearly had a huge row about it in the staff room the other day.  It was spawned by my frustration that the men in the dock are probably going to be found not guilty.  In my humble opinion, to date the defence has possibly cast enough doubt, and smeared Louise Nicholas sufficiently, for the jurors to not have the certainty required for a guilty verdict.  I've sat on a jury, and I know how they work.  It makes me despair.

I wonder how many other women out there are trying to avoid this case too?  How many have made complaints about mistreatment by authority figures, particularly men and especially police, and not been believed?  How many more women have been raped or assaulted by people they should have been able to trust, and then not believed by those who should have taken them at their word?  To be in these situations is almost to be raped twice – to suffer the humiliation, disrespect and subjugation over again when you, rightfully, complain.

Let me be totally clear – false allegations of rape are not acceptable.  But my experience and observation has been that rape is probably the most under-reported of crimes.  And there are reasons for that.  The media coverage of the Louise Nicholas trial illustrates several of them clearly. 

Firstly many women are too ashamed and upset to face the fact that they have been raped, let alone report it.  Particularly when the assault has been perpetrated by someone you know, which is the case with the vast majority of acts of sexual violence, subsuming what has happened to you may be the only way to cope.  Talking yourself out of acknowledging the truth is a form of defence, because what really happened it is too shattering to deal with.

Secondly the attitude of police towards rape victims is known to vary widely – from kind and appropriate treatment and vigilant prosecution of the rapist, to disinterest and form-filling, to open hostility and disbelief.  Who knows which kind of officer you'll get when you try to report it?

Thirdly, there's the public shaming – the trial by media.  It is supposed to be the three police officers who are on trial in this case, not the victim.  And yet the past of Louise Nicholas has been brought up time and time again.  In contrast, I know of significant and relevant information from the history of some of those on trial which is not legally allowed to be raised at all. 

I know that those accused have rights, and usually I am a vigorous defender of them, but it seems to me that when it is those in power who are in the dock those rights are often abused.  I haven't done any research on this, but I'd be really interested to compare coverage of rape trials where the accused was someone not in the elite – someone not white, well-off or male.  I would be prepared to lay a bet that the media, and the defence, in that case focused on the accused rather than the victim.

*I have to wonder – what other news has featured such a headline?  Usually the Herald front page layout has two stories above the fold, one with a big headline and one with a big picture.  But on this occasion there was only the one story, grabbing both a banner right across the page (when the headline usually only goes part-way across) and a big picture underneath.  It's a "glory spot" usually reserved only for declarations of war, bombings of major English-speaking cities, or heroic sporting feats.


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