What should Sarah Wollaston have done?

by Carl Gardner on April 17, 2014

Sarah Wollaston MP

Sarah Wollaston MP has come in for some criticism over how she dealt with two men who told her, last year, that they’d been in one case sexually assaulted, and in another case raped, by Nigel Evans MP. He was acquitted of rape and a number of sexual assault charges last week, and is not guilty of any of them.

Dan Hodges, in the Telegraph (I’m on his case again, I’m afraid), explains his criticism of Sarah Wollaston by saying

Partly because of her actions, a wholly innocent man had his reputation destroyed and his career ruined, and now faces crippling debts to cover the cost of his legal fees.

What she did was wrong, his argument seems to run, because she triggered the chain of events that led to where Nigel Evans is now.

And in I think the worst article I’ve seen written on this whole affair, the Steeple Times says

This maliciously reckless woman is amongst those responsible for having ensured our contributor Nigel Evans was wrongly brought to trial by the Crown Prosecution Service … Here is a woman who has helped cost Nigel Evans his career and £130,000 in legal fees.

Again (this time in immoderate terms) the complaint is that the case reached court because of her involvement. So what did Sarah Wollaston do to justify condemnation like this? Just as importantly: what do these critics say she should have done?

Wollaston explained what she did do in an article she wrote, also in the Telegraph, on Monday. In it, she says a man told her he’d been sexually assaulted, and came to her office – at her invitation – to recount more fully what he said had happened. Then another man telephoned her, saying he’d been raped.

Neither wanted to go to the police, but both asked for my help, as they wanted a disciplinary process to take place – in their words, because they felt other individuals were at risk.

It’s worth wondering, for a moment, how Sarah Wollaston knew these men didn’t want to go to the police. Presumably they told her so. In the article she doesn’t say she asked: but either she did ask, and got this answer; or else the answer came without her needing to ask. She goes on:

I made appointments for both men to see the Speaker, John Bercow. After the first meeting, he took legal advice, then sent a member of his staff to tell me that he could not become involved.

I’m not surprised by the Speaker’s legal advice. Had I been Counsel to the Speaker I too would have advised that he had no disciplinary role as an employer or regulator, and that criminal matters were for the police. Wollaston says

As a former forensic medical examiner, I am completely aware that the decision to report sexual violence to the police must be made solely by the complainants. That is why, when I was approached by the police following the first appointment with the Speaker, I declined to pass over the men’s names or contact details. I did, however, pass the officers’ contact details to the two young people concerned.

She herself did not contact the police, then. She raised the allegations with the Speaker, after which the police contacted her (which I can only explain by assuming Parliamentary staff got in touch with them). When the Speaker’s staff told her he could not get involved, she passed police contact details on to the two men. This is the only thing she did which can be said to have triggered the involvement of the criminal justice system.

What’s odd is that, although criticising Sarah Wollaston for setting off the chain of events that led to the trial, both critics I’ve quoted say they’d prefer her to have suggested the police be involved earlier than they actually were.

In response to my question whether it would have been wrong for her to say “You should go to the police” or ask Why don’t you go to the police?” (either of which could just as easily have led to the investigation, charge, trial and acquittal as what she actually did) Dan Hodges on Twitter replied to me like this:

The Steeple Times for its part says she should have gone directly to the police herself:

In these tweets, Dan Hodges and the Steeple Times flatly contradict the broad thrust of the criticisms they themselves have made (as well as contradicting each other). Dan Hodges complains that Sarah Wollaston passed on police contact details; yet had she simply told the two men to go to the police as he suggests, that could just as well have meant that

because of her actions, a wholly innocent man had his reputation destroyed and his career ruined, and now face[d] crippling debts to cover the cost of his legal fees

to quote Dan Hodges himself. It almost certainly would have, had she unilaterally gone to the police as the Steeple Times says. These criticisms make no sense. The incoherence of Dan Hodges’ position is made even clearer by his later suggesting Wollaston ought to have treated the allegations as a disciplinary matter:

On that approach, she was right to go to the Speaker (or do something else similar, but unspecified) and should not have done anything about the police. That fits with his complaint that Wollaston should not have encouraged the two men to go to the police –

– and with the broad implication that she was wrong to do anything to trigger the involvement of criminal justice; but not with his saying telling them to go to the police, or at least asking them why they hadn’t (something we know she was given the answer to) was precisely what she should have done:

Criticism of Sarah Wollaston does not stand up to scrutiny, as these two examples show. It would have been wrong for her to have done nothing when these men approached her. Journalists are among the first to criticise anyone in public life or in business (in the BBC, for example) who hears about an allegation of rape or sexual assault, and chooses to do nothing. The very least she should have done was encourage the men to go to the police (which Dan Hodges criticises her for doing, while at the same time saying suggesting she should have told them to go to the police).

The only other things she could have done were either to attempt to find some sort of disciplinary process for dealing with the allegations (something Dan Hodges has said she should have respected – and which she did respect; and something that, even so, Dan Hodges also criticises her for)

or else to approach the police herself, which Dan Hodges yet again also criticises for her, although it seems she didn’t actually do it; and which the Steeple Times says she should have done (although it criticises her for triggering the police investigation, prosecution and so on). For these critics, everything she did and could possibly have done would seem to have been wrong.

Standing back and trying my best to be fair to Dan Hodges, I think his real position must be that Sarah Wollaston was wrong to have contacted the Speaker and wrong to have passed police contact details to the men, and should simply have suggested they go to the police themselves. I think he sees real significance in the distinction between giving someone police contact details, and suggesting they should contact the police (something we disagreed about in our Twitter exchange):

But even having said that I cannot help (at the risk of extreme repetitiousness) reminding myself than Dan also says she was wrong to encourage the men to go to the police.

I’ve already posted a Storify of the Twitter debate between Dan, me and others about this (which was necessarily selective, I admit, but which I tried to make fair), and of course have linked to his Telegraph article: you can make up your own mind whether I’ve been unfair to him in this post.

Different people, faced with what faced Sarah Wollaston, would have done different things. I think I’d have approached it slightly differently myself. But I have no criticism of her at all. She acted perfectly reasonably, and did what she could to ensure these men’s allegations were taken seriously, and in accordance with their wishes. She was quite right to pass on police contact details to them. It’s not her fault that one of them gave the police an account that he admitted in court was untrue.

Awful things can happen, and innocent people can suffer, without a public servant or representative of the people necessarily being to blame.

As for the Steeple Times, which has outrageously accused Sarah Wollaston of malice – well, I think those of us who have sympathy with Nigel Evans ought not to be so quick with unfair, baseless and self-contradictory accusations.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 kris April 17, 2014 at 22:18

it’s almost as if Hodges doesn’t understand the role of the police as investigators of crime – or of the CPS and the two-limbed test for bringing a prosecution.

Sarah Wollaston is a convenient scapegoat – and I still can’t make up my mind whether Hodges’s arguments are misogyny based or simply party political bullshit.

2 parvaz khn April 29, 2014 at 16:13

Tow sensitive points rape and sexual.Overall nice discussion.
Thanks.

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