In the early 2000s, I tried to take a high-profile man who had sexually assaulted me to court. He was rich, famous and powerful, all the things that I – 19 years old at the time of the attack – was not.
I was granted lifelong anonymity by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), which is vital part of encouraging survivors to report what has happened to them. I was told that if a newspaper printed my name, the editor would be sent to prison. That felt safe. But as soon as I reported the full details of what happened to me to the police, specifics about my allegations began appearing in the national press. Not my name, ‘just’ my most deeply held secrets. It is hard to describe how vulnerable that makes you feel.
I became paranoid. I believed my house was bugged; I searched every piece of furniture, in every room, every inch of every window, inside and out … every day. I ran taps when I spoke about the case to my friends or on the phone. I refused to talk about it in public spaces. Still my deepest secrets continued to appear, as if by magic, in the pages of the tabloid press.
My assailant was arrested and charged but ultimately the allegations had to be withdrawn, because when a new piece of evidence emerged – a letter, the contents of which could have helped my case, but that nevertheless required me to disclose even more of myself, even more of my secrets – I stopped talking. Everything I had so far told the police had ended up in the papers. I wouldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t. I refused to talk about the letter.
That meant that the CPS felt they could no longer pursue the charges and did not prosecute the high-profile man after all. He has since been charged with sexual assault many more times.
“An article about me and my case that was so revealing it made me dizzy”
My house was besieged by tabloid reporters. I was offered tens of thousands of pounds to tell my side of the story. This was something I was desperate to do – I wanted to explain about the letter, that I decided not to talk about it, that it didn’t mean the assault didn’t happen.
But telling my side of the story meant losing my anonymity, exposing my family to the tabloids, making myself even more vulnerable, even more publicly, and by that time I was too terrified to do so. I had already experienced hearing people gossip at bus stops, in cafes, on trains about whether or not this terrible, life-changing experience had really happened to me. I once disembarked an overground train and walked into a stag-do of men wearing masks of my assailant’s face, like it was all some hilarious joke. Imagine if those men had been able to recognise me by my face too. I already felt exposed enough, so I turned all the reporters away.
“The Metropolitan Police… leaked those secrets to the press”
Imagine how shocked I was, then, that regardless of the caution I had taken, the following Sunday the News of the World printed an article about me and my case that was so revealing it made me actually dizzy. It contained details of my background and of some of my life experiences that my family and closest friends didn’t even know. It contained a description of the physical reaction I had to nearly bumping into my assailant a few years after the attack. It flippantly stated that I was in hiding and suicidal …
… how did they know? It took me a long time – and training as a journalist – to work it out. I wasn’t bugged (to the best of my knowledge), I may have been phone hacked, but you can’t glean the kind of information that was in that article from a voicemail. Finally, with the help of Tamsin Allen at Bindman’s law firm, I proved that it can only have been the Metropolitan Police that sold me out. The Metropolitan Police. The organisation I trusted with my secrets in order to try and get help, in order to stop a dangerous man. They leaked those secrets to the press. The Met has since admitted this and I have received an apology and a sum of compensation.
I have therefore had the opportunity to seek (a form of) justice for the corruption and press abuse I was subject to, but I am writing this to raise awareness of the fact that many others do not and it is still happening.
So many victims of the press are, like me, not famous, have never courted publicity, are private, law-abiding individuals there can be no public interest in pursuing. I do not mean to say that ‘famous’ people don’t deserve privacy too, they absolutely do, and some very brave celebrities have become the faces of anti-press abuse campaigns. They take on the vicious and vengeful tabloid owners and editors at great personal risk and I admire them hugely. But there are also hundreds if not thousands of people like me, who at some point in their life have ended up as a news headline for some other reason, many of us victims of crime, and the level of press intrusion we have then had to endure is responsible for a further-reaching and far longer-lasting trauma. This cannot be allowed to go on.
“How can protecting the integrity of the justice system ever cost too much?”
I lost out on getting justice for a life-blitzing sexual assault because of the impact on me of the corrupt relationship between the police and the tabloid press. The second part of the Leveson Inquiry was meant to look at, amongst other things, exactly that – where the corruption of the police by the tabloid press happened, whether it continues, what lessons we can learn to protect the privacy of traumatised survivors of crime. No one is arguing that there shouldn’t be a line of communication between the police and the press. Indeed, there is a clear public interest in public servants of all types feeling they can safely speak out if they need to, to expose dishonesty, discrimination or abuse. But it must be a relationship of integrity. At some point in the past, in some areas of the press, that relationship became corrupted; by money, by a perceived level of influence, for fear of upsetting those powerful and punitive editors and owners. That is when it deviated from serving the public interest to intruding on the privacy of crime victims and their families, ultimately, for profit. And it benefits no one but the profiteers.
The Government cancelled Leveson Two in 2018, saying it was too costly and too time-consuming to pursue. How can protecting the integrity of the justice system ever cost too much? How can any of us truly feel we can rely on it when we are at our most vulnerable until past corruption is exposed and current corruption put a stop to?
So that no one else ever feels as alone as I did, as hounded, as misrepresented, as rubbished – as suicidal – that inquiry should happen now, in the name of all of us who have survived the humiliation of press abuse. Let’s not forget, there are many who have not.
*Maria is a pseudonym to protect the author’s identity.