‘Panic’ figure by Isobel Williams – from Proof magazine, issue 1

After all, what is a fine lie? Simply that which is its own evidence.’
Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying (1891)

The present preoccupation with sex crime and victims of crime has given rise to a new type of victim: the falsely accused. These victims rarely receive the attention from policy-makers that they deserve, although the collapse of some recent high profile investigations into allegations of historic abuse has belatedly prompted a more sceptical approach to some complainants.  I believe that victims of false accusations now deserve more consideration.

Even a nascent rebellion against the fashionable ideology of ‘believe the victim [of sexual abuse]’ supported by former DPP Keir Starmer QC is out of step with current CPS practice (Human rights, victims and the prosecution of crime in the 21st century, (2014) Crim LR 777, 782). A Manchester barrister who prosecutes allegations of sexual assault for the CPS was recently quoted as saying: ‘Rape has become the bread and butter of the CPS. Basically if someone complains, we prosecute.

Various victims of false accusations, of whom the most high profile and outspoken is the well-known BBC radio presenter Paul Gambaccini, have voiced dismay at the authorities’ willingness to entertain complaints that in the past would have been seen as outlandish, even vexatious.

Modern Gothic
Perhaps the most extreme example of fantasy at work is Operation Midland, looking into allegations of alleged VIP abuse centring on a Westminster apartment block popular among MPs: Dolphin Square. This exercise, which cost the public purse £1.8 million in police staffing costs alone (here), was prompted by sensational reports on an online news source named Exaro.

Its star witness is an anonymous accuser, whose multiple personalities include Nick, Carl “Survivor” and Stephen. He claims to have witnessed a number of murders, and attempted genital mutilation, as well as being repeatedly assaulted himself by his army step-father and various MPs and other dignitaries, including the former Home Secretary, Sir Leon Brittan.  In November 2014, Detective Superintendent McDonald, who led the Metropolitan Police inquiry into Nick/ Exaro’s claims, called them ‘credible and true’.

Professor Jenkins, an eminent historian, has patiently explained that the evidence for Nick’s claims has been weak to non-existent. In two recent articles for The American Conservative (here and here), he points out that, conspiracy theories about a dastardly group of child-raping, boy-murdering VIPs is a rehash of 1980s scare-mongering:

‘The “elite paedophilia” charges circulated very widely in tabloid media of the 1980s, usually in the context of lunatic theories of Satanism and supposed “ritual child abuse,” sometimes linked to anti-Masonic hysteria. Then as now, these fevered rumors named names, including cabinet members and members of the royal family, as well as prominent Jews, like Brittan himself.’

Why are such preposterous tales taken so seriously today? Jenkins argues that this is because those hearing them have an ideological need to believe in a litany of horrors: ‘When I say that X is “credible”, what we mean is that I find what he has to say believable, and that fact depends as much on my willingness to accept his statement as on any quality in his character or demeanor.’

Yet Sir Keir Starmer and the present DPP Alison Saunders have both popularized the idea that it is possible, indeed desirable, to separate the credibility of an allegation from the credibility of its maker.

11 ways to falsity
It’s time for a much more rigorous and open discussion about why some people  – whom we should call ‘pseudovictims’ – make false allegations.  But first I should clarify what is meant by ‘false’. The word is ambiguous, covering a spectrum of claims that are simply unfounded, to those that are mistaken, to those that are dishonest.

In their 2012 paper, Jessica Engle and William O’Donoghue proposed 11 pathways to false allegations of sexual assault. These are:

  1. Lying;
  2. Implied consent;
  3. False memories;
  4. Intoxication;
  5. Antisocial personality disorder;
  6. Borderline personality disorder;
  7. Histrionic personality disorder;
  8. Delirium;
  9. Psychotic disorders;
  10. Dissociation; and
  11. Intellectual disability.

Crucially, they omit the honest but mistaken person: Pathway 12. A classic example of this is the rape victim who misidentifies her assailant in an identity parade.

People may lie about sexual assaults for a variety of motives: to inflict harm on the accused and his family; as revenge for some perceived slight or failure; for monetary gain; to get out of trouble; to explain a pregnancy; to gain the upper hand in a custody dispute, or to fit in with a group that is making accusations against a particular person or institution (the ‘bandwagon effect’).

Engle and O’Donoghue call these secondary gains. It should also be recognized that people who start by lying may come to believe in their own stories.

Confusion over consent
Another problem has emerged as a result of the redefining of what is meant by consent. Many feminists – especially those at universities – have campaigned for the introduction of ‘affirmative consent’ policies, which place the responsibility on male partners to obtain consent to every stage of a sexual encounter. In San Francisco last autumn, one health educator told a class of 16 year-olds that they should obtain consent every ten minutes.

This excessively prescriptive approach may cause some young people to redefine an encounter as non-consensual, with the benefit of hindsight.  What they do not understand is that their behaviour could plausibly be interpreted as consensual at the time. What does not help is if others, who are consulted, become obsessed with trying to establish if the scenario amounts to a rape case.

The intoxication of both or one party to a sexual encounter can create particular difficulties.  Alcohol and other drugs can disinhibit; they can also create cognitive distortions, memory gaps and blackouts. Persons recovering from a drugged state may confabulate to fill in memory gaps and develop a narrative of what they think ‘must have’ occurred.

People can also develop false memories of abuse, for example as a result of contact with therapists, pressure from peers or from significant others (such as partners or parents), or even from reading stories in the media.  There is not space here to discuss this important topic in detail.

Mental disorder
It is a sad fact that those with mental disorders or learning disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to sexual assault.  But it should also be recognized that third parties – such as care providers – may stand to benefit from a false allegation.

That mental problems could potentially lead to false allegations is rarely discussed. But it is a very serious issue, which would benefit from wider debate. Those with personality disorders may be motivated to make false accusations out of motives of revenge, or attention-seeking.  Some may misperceive non-sexual events as sexual. Those who are delusional may also make false accusations of sexual misconduct.

Those who are learning disabled may innocently make sexualized comments, which may be seized on by those caring for them as a sign of abuse. They are highly suggestible.

The power of story-telling
In my opinion, far too little attention has been paid to the lure of the victim narrative, and the rewards of victimhood (for those who are competent).  These rewards can include the sympathy and attention which those proclaiming to be victims can expect, and the seduction of the ‘truthful lie’, both for its narrator and its audience.

Those who confabulate about their past experience so as to come to terms with it may be expressing an emotional truth (such as a perception of a violation of the self), but an actual lie. As the psychologist Professor Janice Haaken acknowledges:

‘The art of storytelling is not based merely on chronicling a sequence of facts but on the artful juxtaposition of dramatic elements. The power of the story to stir others…depends on its felt truth and plausibility rather than on its mere facticity… .  This may be the age of testimonial, as Elie Wiesel suggests, but testifiers do not inevitably speak the truth, as virtuous as they may perceive themselves to be.’
Professor Janice Haaken, Pillar of Salt: Gender, Memory and the Perils of Looking Back (Rutgers University Press, 1998)

The VIP-accuser Nick seems to be an epic storyteller. The fact that the highest echelons of the UK’s police fell for his tall tales is surely a tribute to his narrative powers. Whilst he may indeed have been a victim of some form of sexual abuse, his story seems to have taken on a life of its own. I am convinced that others have played a part in the creation of his Gothic tableaux. The deconstruction of this remarkable episode will no doubt occupy researchers and journalists for much time to come.
This article originally appeared in The Barrister magazine here


Profile photo of Barbara Hewson About Barbara Hewson
Barbara is a barrister practising at 1 Gray's Inn Square. She specialises in public and administrative law; human rights & civil liberties; and professional discipline and regulatory law. Her practice includes mental capacity and court of protection work, judicial review, inquests, healthcare law, professional discipline and employment law.

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  • Christopher Lennon April 8, 2016 5:49 pm

    Excellent analysis, as always, from Barbara Hewson. I wish these insights could be deployed in court and to juries asked to convict on the strength of forty or fifty year old and entirely uncorroborated ‘memories’. We don’t even have a definition of what constitutes ‘abuse’, so accounts are often entirely subjective and all too easy to embroider just enough to demonise the defendant.
    One day, we will look back on this as a time of collective neurosis, as the author suggests.

  • Sandra Nixon April 9, 2016 6:50 am

    And we might add the solicitors who exploit the survivor and willing accusers towards claiming criminal compensation. . The list of schools and homes on some web sites of solicitors actively seeking out the abused and then coaching the victim towards compensation is ignored. No-one wants to know that solicitors make it up. A gravy train exists for filling out a few forms and applying for criminal compensation. An investigation should be undertaken to ascertain how many cases actually go to court or are prematurely stopped after CC has been claimed? I hold my hands up here I know of one solicitor who openly touts for business and in my case lied to obtain legal aid. My case was turned into a sexual abuse case when what I needed was my case heard and to clear my name. I stated this from the start. You would imagine that regulatory bodies would be interested and take action. Not the SRA not legal aid not Legal Ombudsman who continues to reject my approach to have my case heard, a very hot potato indeed. I have reems of proof but may as well bang my head against the wall. The ‘authorities act as though they are doing me a favour.
    Take a good long look at the legal fraternity as well as those who would seek to gain from a corrupt system, which is what this is. My mother is dead and my bothers sexually abused me apparently, not true but enabled legal aid to be successfully applied for.
    I am sorry but it takes a solicitor and their knowledge of the system to get these cases up and running. Where do you go to let the ‘authorities’ know, who are the authorities. I divulge this information because I see that sucking people in has become a national pass time, the advocates have become the abusers in some cases, with absolutely no recourse and no-one who is in the least bit interested. I can be contacted

  • A Mother April 9, 2016 9:56 pm

    One point I would like to raise is a reward of victimhood that has not been mentioned – compensation. Payments made on the ‘balance of probabilities’ decisions made by civil servants to make payments to ‘victims’ despite defendants’ not guilty verdicts in the criminal courts. If sympathy and attention is enough to encourage people to lie the prospect of a large financial payment (starting point is £11,000, for rape) is a huge added incentive.

    Perhaps it is time to consider psychiatric/psychological counselling for victims of rape rather than money. The genuine victims may benefit in dealing with the trauma of their ordeal and the false accusers may gain the attention they crave and treatment to end their cycle of lying for attention.

    The trauma and anguish never ends for those falsely accused even after clearing their name. The stigma remains forever and devastates victims and their families of this hideous behaviour.

  • Sandra Nixon April 10, 2016 6:14 pm

    But of course this will never be published and yet I have substantiating documentation. Journalists do a good job of helping the cover up of the disintegration of the legal system so that it is impossible.

  • Tim April 11, 2016 1:36 am

    The affirmative consent law is the most monstrous, anti-male law I’ve seen in my lifetime – but only if you leave out the fact that women get half the sentences of men, on average, for the same crimes. I’ve seen prominent feminists, both male and female, suggest that the affirmative consent law as about making men terrified of sex with women! The religious see the law as a way to force men into marriage, as opposed to hookups on campus, to get sex! Sick sociopaths!

    The affirmative consent law is really simple. Remove men’s rights to due process and presumption of innocence. If you don’t record the entire sexual act, which by the way is now being made illegal/has been illegal, how are you supposed to prove consent at each stage? You can’t – hence expulsion of men by women on demand. This law makes me and just about everyone I know a rapist.

    What kind of sick, sociopathic mind thinks the affirmative consent law is in any way a just law? Affirmative consent is just another in a long line of man-hating laws and policies that privilege women over men and give disgruntled or greedy women a way to destroy innocent men’s lives. Anyone that supports this law is sick in the head!

  • shadowy figure April 11, 2016 7:16 pm

    A bunch of hysterical nonsense, with no reliable evidence given to back it up.

    The low rate of reporting of sexual violence, low conviction rate, numerous and well documented cases of police failings to investigate sexual offences, police practices of immediately recording rape reports as ‘no crime’ with no further investigation, CPS determination to pursue women for making ‘false allegations’ based on spurious evidence… all give the lie to the claim that the justice system is in any way eager to believe victims and punish offenders. Instead, the system is an obstruction for that.

    The very low prevalence of false claims in any reliable studies also give lie to your claim that such things happen often.

    Coming out in society as a victim of a sexual offence affords you a range of responses, from objectification to scepticism, being patronised and having to face repeated, disrespectful inquiries into private matters… to disbelief, isolation and violence. Sympathy and support are rare.

    The truth is that the vast majority of rapists will not receive any penalty for their actions, while victims do not see justice and are instead disbelieved and humiliated, if not made to suffer further violence. Which rapist won’t claim that allegations against him are fabricated? I’m sure many of them honestly believe that there was nothing wrong with what they did. You are very eager to take their side.

    I’m not sure entirely which planet you come from to believe that telling people you’ve experienced sexual violence affords you any sort of reward, that false allegations happen often, or that the justice system supports those reporting sexual violence. I expect it’s one where empirical evidence is unheard of and courting controversy by buying into moral panic is the way ahead.

    • Sandra Nixon April 12, 2016 4:37 pm

      Yes but it does happen and whilst the situation exists it will invite questioning and controversy. No-one is saying that abuse does not happen because it obviously does. I think that most people question that which has deemed to be unquestionable. It is quite a ridiculous situation where people can accuse and everyone suspends disbelief. This situation has come about in reaction to a time when people who were reporting rape and abuse were not believed, the cards were stacked against them ever being taken serious and cover ups happened. We have gone too far in accepting that all and any reports are true reports because they are given by the victim. We should be suspending belief and disbelief until evidence is able to be presented, not judge but just suspend belief and disbelief.
      Of course there will be people who see advantage in this situation, solicitors included.
      I have no idea how often false allegations are made but the fact that they happen is cause for alarm when the accusation is deemed to be incontrovertible.

    • A Mother April 20, 2016 6:23 pm

      Hysterical nonsense! hmmmmm I see…… I am guessing a cast iron alibi is not enough for you then. The hysteria came from the lying, money-grabbing (yes you understood me correctly, money-grabbing accuser – “I will retract my allegation if you give me money”)evil family destroyer malcontent who tried to have my vulnerable, autistic son imprisoned for a crime he did not commit. Were it not for his employers and work colleagues proving his whereabouts he could have been found guilty, despite no forensic evidence because his accuser was taken so seriously. We later found out that she had a great deal of practice of making up these awful accusations.

      Also text messages proved that she was texting him at the time he was supposed to have been raping her, also she was no longer living at the address she had given as being where the rape took place.

      Oh she also applied for compensation from the CICA.

      I have every sympathy for genuine rape victims – I have first hand experience myself over 30 years ago and no I did not report it. From my recent experience the CPS were dogged and determined in hounding my son as were the police – he has had a breakdown and was sectioned. He was not guilty – no action against his accuser; nothing to stop her doing this again. There has to be balance in this debate and rape investigations should adhere to strict guideline and fairness. Hysterical rant over

  • shadowy figure April 14, 2016 1:19 pm

    False allegations do happen but they are very rare.

    The point is the system has not moved on from the picture you paint – ‘people who were reporting rape and abuse were not believed, the cards were stacked against them ever being taken serious’.

    Essentially all evidence points to the justice system being institutionally obstructive to prosecution of sex offences. I expect this is why Ms Hewson has found it hard to find any empirical evidence to substantiate her points.

    eg: – “In some of the cases we have dealt with, the police pressured the victim to say she had lied. ” – “There had been systemic failings by the police in investigating a large number of rapes and sexual assaults” – “the garment was never sent for forensic testing and weeks later the girl, who has mental health problems, was accused of lying about the rape and arrested for perverting the course of justice” – “A third of people believe women who flirt are partially responsible for being raped… Conviction rates for rape are far lower than other crimes, with only 5.7% of reported rape cases ending in a conviction for the perpetrator. ”

    In such a situation even allegations where evidence is watertight have little chance of being taken seriously, let alone false allegations. So although miscarriages of justice in rape cases do happen, the urgent issue is why so many perpetrators are being allowed to get away with it. There certainly is not a culture of ‘suspending disbelief’ in rape cases as Ms Hewson tries to argue.

    I suspect she is courting publicity in an area that has always been ripe for misogynistic moral panics about the falsely accused. Rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused, tho never so innocent’’ – Lord Chief Justice said this in the 1600s.

  • Sandra Nixon April 15, 2016 8:28 pm

    You are hell bent on your version of events and I would like to share with you stories that would make you change your mind.

    Shall we agree that the whole system is a mess and try to come up with some strategies so that we can all go forward?
    This is what it needs.
    Start with:

    Rape needs to be defined which I think maybe has happened to a degree. Love the ads on TV at the moment talking about the yes and no’s of it all. This could reach young people who are not sure. Education to enable talk about sexuality and issues such as rape openly. Maybe some education at older men depends on demographics.

    Perhaps a specially selected group of interested trained magistrates who understand the issues.

    An absolute necessity for the accuser to be seen by someone trained in counselling after trial? The innocent party to be offered the same.

    Compensation could be used for recovery therapy, and re-building a future

    just some ideas that come to mind when thinking about the issues.
    Somehow the system needs to be made fair.

    • shadowy figure April 20, 2016 12:03 pm

      In particular, it is vitally necessary for the police to do basic elements of their job – gather evidence, arrest suspects, make any attempt at investigating whatsoever – which they are not doing at the moment. Give all complainants a fair chance to be heard rather than allow the system to be distorted by prejudices, moral panics and negligence.

      I think we can agree on a lot, my position is that at the moment the police are wholly neglecting their duties and this should end.

  • Bea July 24, 2016 2:16 am

    Interesting piece. Another area where it is easy to make a false allegation of abuse is family law. Anyone with a grievance against a parent, and a malleable young child, can quickly turn a non-event into a full s.47 child protection inquiry. You would hope not, but sadly some particularly nasty people have done this and continue to do this – sometimes ex partners, sometimes people the parent has fallen out with, sometimes even a member of staff who does not see eye to eye on something spurious, such as whether mothers should work or not. The parent is left powerless, at the mercy of unlawful handling of the initial stages of a case, excessive threats, investigation without due cause, undue influence and duplicity from social services. Unfortunately, again, one would hope not. But it seems a sizeable number of social workers are themselves ignorant or consult managers who are woefully ignorant of the relevant law. The person who suffers is the child first. The family is torn to pieces in Kafkaesque fashion. Lives are devastated. Enquiries launched without just cause and fast track processes triggered without having any evidence whatsoever of any harm, emotional or physical, on the say so of just 1 other person (not the child, whoever reported it)

    While CP is terribly important, the toll and destruction that false allegations take on families and children’s lives is unaccounted for. As with any false allegation of abuse, it is a very scary and precarious situation. Much more needs to be done to support those wrongly accused.

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