Dear Michael Portillo: A Challenge to Rape Myths Is Not A Challenge to Free Speech

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”  George Orwell


Freedom of speech – that is, the right to express an opinion without restraint, or fear of being censored – is something which people value. The fundamental ability to be able to give voice to our individuality, to speak what we think without fear of sanctions, intimidation or threats of violence, and express beliefs however unpopular, is something we all prize.

Given that this is a right that white cis-gendered men have little problem accessing here in the West, and a right that they have indeed taken for granted, the irony of a privileged white man voicing concerns that freedom of speech is under attack because some women have called out a rape myth is.. well, really very unedifying .  As trans* and cis gendered women on the internet know only too well, being able to speak without fear of being targeted by people who have no problem threatening them physically and sexually, and abusing them on the grounds of gender, race and sexuality is still a right which has yet to be acknowledged – let alone accorded.

It was with some degree of self-restraint therefore, that I failed to throw a heavy object through my television last night when Michael Portillo expressed his concern that the BBC had issued an apology in the wake of remarks by Michael Buerke, prior to the transmission of the Moral Maze on Wednesday evening, which discussed whether or not Ched Evans – the convicted rapist who once played football for Sheffield United – should be allowed to return to professional football.  Portillo, it should be noted (who is not on Twitter and probably not aware of the value, worth and effectiveness of online activism), was also on that Moral Maze programme, and his position could be fairly described as being in favour of Ched Evans returning to football.

However it is specifically his remarks at the start of last nights ‘This Week’ programme – on which he is a weekly panellist – that I am addressing.

Essentially Portillo felt that the ‘twittersphere’ (who by implication are some sort of nameless mob) had levered an apology by itimidation from the BBC for Michael Buerke’s remarks, that this was an issue of free speech which the BBC had a duty to preserve, and that these storms of protest acted to limit what people could say.[Note: Once it is available on iPlayer again (for some reason it is currently not available), you will be able to listen to what he says, but I think that what I have given here is a fair summation.]

First – and foremost – the reason that Michael Buerke’s comments caused such upset and were rightly challenged both by individuals and groups such as Rape Crisis and Ending Victimisation and Blame, was because they are well worn, and highly damaging, rape myths which effectively lay the blame for the rape on the behaviour of the victim. In the context of the way in which victims of rape generally – and the woman raped by Ched Evans specifically in this particular instance – face condemnation and judgement because of those myths, challenging comments which were at best insensitive was the right thing to do.

In the context of the torrent of abuse and harassment which family and supporters of Evans have metered out to Evans victim – a woman who may have to change her identity for a second time – this was in no sense an issue of free speech.

Rape silences its victims every day. I would therefore ask Michael Portillo if genuinely believes that there is a ‘right’ to speak an opinion which enables a culture to silence victims of rape? Is he aware that [CN] those who claim to believe in free speech [TW/CN] refuse to accept that rape myths are just that, and do not recognise or understand the damage they do?

In order to live in a world where everyone can be safe and free, and individuals free to speak, there are times where we must understand where our priorities lay – and we must not be afraid to stand by those priorities. The BBC were right to issue an apology.

Julian ‘I Am The Messiah’ Assange on the BBC

So Julian Assange did a thing on Radio 4’s Thought For The Day today.

That’s right. A man who is a fugitive from justice, who is avoiding facing legal allegations of rape by holing himself up in the Ecuadorian Embassy, was allowed by the BBC to broadcast his thoughts on… wait for it… “governments dare to aspire.. to a god-like knowledge of each and every one of us.”


So the man with the most blatant messiah complex, who wants us to believe that he never committed any act of rape or sexual assault – who encourages his own followers to believe in his innocence in an act of psuedo-religious faith; and who dis-fellowships those who dare to question him in a way not dissimilar to cults like the Jehovah Witness’ – accuses the governments of the West of “daring to aspire to god-like knowledge”.

I am not hugely concerned with what he said: I am hugely concerned that the BBC gave him air time.  And before some bright spark starts in with the ‘he’s-not-been-charged-or-found-guilty’ schtick, let me just nail this right now.

2 women have made a complaint that he raped and assaulted them. 2 women who Assange and his church  (sorry, groupies … I mean supporters) have publicly named, and smeared and have gone to great lengths to generally further degraded these women. (In what is possibly the oldest trope going, these women have been accused of being ‘part of a plot’ to destroy Assange/Wikileaks).

Julian Assange’s lawyers twice argued to the British Courts that the allegations would not be rape under English law, and on both occasions the courts ruled that the allegations would, indeed, be considered rape.  Let this sink in for a moment, because he is basically saying that he did it, he just doesn’t consider it to be rape.

(For more on the legal mythology surrounding Assange, I would suggest reading David Allen Green – aka ‘Jack of Kent’ – or this by Anya Palma).

What the BBC did today by giving Assange air time was legitimize this fugitive from justice. They gave a man evading rape charges a pat on the back and told everyone that this was a man being victimised by the very same patriarchal system he exploits to rape women and then evade the legal consequences.

And this is not okay.

It’s BS – high, stinking, BS.


BBC Newsbeat False Rape Story & Why Their Reply Sucks

On the 13th March, BBC Newsbeat (their online news service aimed at 15 – 24 year olds) ran a story which used, as it’s starting point, the recent CPS report which aimed to show how rare false rape allegations are (1) and quite clearly stated, in the article, that the CPS report showed how common they are. (And before anyone jumps in and starts on about how serious/damaging false rape allegations are let me clear: yes, they are – but that is not why this report was deeply flawed and why a good many people are rightly angry.)

Bad Journalism

First of all this was bad journalism – and it was bad because it used the wrong report to cover a difficult subject in entirely the wrong way. Let’s break it down a bit:

  1. 33% of girls have experience sexual abuse. 25% of girls have experienced physical abuse. 75% of girls have experienced emotional abuse. (2009, NSPCC report).
  2. 12.7% of girls and 6.2% of boys in the 16-19 year old age bracket have experienced partner abuse. (British Crime Survey). (2)

So the target audience of Newsbeat is the group most at risk from violent, sexual and physical crime. This is important to understand because the response from the BBC highlights only too clearly that they don’t and it is vital that they do because – as Chloe Emmott’s article in Huffington Post (3) points out – the Newsbeat article does the very thing that Keir Starmer has warned against and which the CPS report is at pains to point out.

Cherry Picking

In the response from the BBC that we who complained received, the following defence is made:

While some people did say our reporting of false accusations was damaging to real rape victims, on our Social Networking sites false accusations were described as “disgusting”, and one young man told us that he felt the bigger problem was that these claims make life harder for real rape victims to be taken seriously. On Twitter another young male listener told us “Allegations of rape not only waste police time but wreck the lives of those accused!” And another wrote: “My 23-year-old nephew was recently accused of rape. He then killed himself. The girl did it again to another guy.” 

And right there, in the lines I have highlighted, is exactly where the BBC shoots itself in the foot because the point of the CPS report is that false allegations of rape are so extremely rare and that therefore neither society nor the police should feel the need to be cautious about any allegation made.

In the BBC response to the complaint they state:

In the fourth line of our story, we quote the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, who says false rape allegations are “serious but rare”.

But they ignore what Mr Sarmer goes on to say, and which is far more pertinent:

“In recent years we have worked hard to dispel the damaging myths and stereotypes that are associated with these cases. One such misplaced belief is that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are rife.”

If, as is claimed, that they were looking “to help contextualize the story” then the problem is both in the approach to the story in the first place, and the serious mis-use of a vitally important report which ought to help change the culture that allowed Jimmy Saville to get away with systematic and appalling abuse for 40 years.

It’s the same culture that says that leads to young men thinking that the problem for rape victims is false rape allegations, when the problem for rape victims is a culture that shifts the blame from the rapist on to other women.

It’s the same culture that means our young people are at the greatest risk of physical, emotional and sexual abuse at the hands of a partner.

It’s the same culture, where false rape allegations are 0.02% of reports made, that means that this:

For clarity we have changed a word in the second sentence from “common” to “unusual”.

– is what passes for an apology from the BBC.


*I have emailed this as my response to the BBC. If they reply, I will update here.