Criminal: UK – How not to do a rape story

Criminal is one of those high-concept Netflix shows, made with top acting talent, gorgeous cinematography, and a ticking digital clock that counts down how much time Our Heroes have to crack the case. There are actually four versions, UK, France, Germany and Spain, each entirely focussed around the interviews between the suspect, and the police officers interrogating them. The details of the crime are skilfully built into the interviews (telling a story, let alone one that’s already happened, entirely through dialogue, is not easy), and the audience is, many times, left guessing about the suspect’s guilt or innocence. And all the while, that glowing red digital clock ticks down how much time remains.

Ticking clocks that look exactly like this one…

Sometimes, like all high-concept shows, it’s in danger of disappearing up its own arse as it tries to make clever points about police work and the interactions between investigators and criminals – the finale of season 1 of Criminal: UK, depicted a detective drinking on duty being allowed to carry on interviewing a suspect because He Was The Only One Who Could Reach Them, for instance. The interrogation techniques shown on screen also don’t bear much resemblance to the PEACE technique actually used by UK forces. But, overall, Criminal: UK tends to be clever, tense, atmospheric, and an enjoyable watch.

Then there’s the rape episode.

Season 2, Episode 2, for anyone who wants to go find it on Netflix. Be warned, you might hear a loud whistling noise at the end, which is the point of all real stories of rape flying over the heads of the writers.

Simply put – say it with me now – False Allegations Of Rape Are Not A Problem.

There are many, many, huge, ginormous problems with how the British justice system deals with cases of rape. Indeed, some recent Appeals court decisions seem to have jammed even the minor progress that had been made since R v R finally established that rape could, indeed, occur within a marriage in 1991, into full reverse. To give one example, In 1997 Parliament legislated that a victim’s sexual history could not be used in court except in exceptional circumstances… until the Court of Appeal decided in 2015, in R v Evans, that exceptional circumstances apparently now include everything except pure vanilla kissy missionary sex.

The woman you had sex with (as I am legally required to say since the defendant was acquitted after that decision) was so drunk she was passed out? No problem – now you can run the ‘She’s a bit of a slapper though,’ defence and get yourself off even though that seems to have nothing to do with whether or not your partner (as I am now legally required to describe the woman in question) was conscious enough to consent.

And that’s just one example, from a high profile case. I could fill an entire blog with all the problems that victims of rape encounter attempting to get justice after their attacks. Most modern police procedurals have slowly started coming around to this idea too, even if they don’t always get it quite right. Watch Unbelievable on Netflix for an example of a procedural which really does.

It just makes it all the more disappointing for the new kid on the block to get it so badly wrong.

Because, and I’ll say it again slowly for those at the back… False. Allegations. Of. Rape. Are Not. A. Problem.

To the story in question. Kit Harrington plays Alex, a businessman accused of rape by a junior colleague. This seems to be a good setup, all the right ingredients are there. We have the pre-existing imbalance of power relations, what starts out as a social event between co-workers with alcohol involved, a woman seemingly placing herself in a vulnerable position to try and seem like one of the guys.

Kit Harrington proved his acting versatility, I’ll give this episode that

A situation where it’s effectively her word against her boss’, with no other witnesses and very little physical evidence. Where she hasn’t come forward for days and even then, only with the support and encouragement of a friend.

Just like so many real rapes. I really thought we were going to get a good look at the frustration, for victims and investigators alike, of knowing what had happened but of not being able to prove it.

And then, we get the Twist.

And the Twist is…

She was making it all up, all along.

The Twist is, when the police start analysing the records of texts from the woman’s phone, they find a message to her best friend discussing how they would use the money Alex will pay her in a settlement for a holiday in South Africa, just like they did when the best friend falsely accused her boss of rape.

The Twist is, it was a False Allegation made by two Evil Women to scam money out of their bosses after those bosses had made the mistake of sleeping with them.

Watch out, men who sleep with your employees. You might end up paying for their next holiday as well…

So, let’s look at some facts. Are false allegations of rape a problem, making it a scary world for the kind of man who likes to shag his secretary on the side? Well, the short answer… actually no, the correct and only answer is NO. By the latest estimate from the CPS, about one rape allegation in every one hundred and thirty is false. In other words, well over 99% of rape allegations are true. By the time you factor in that only one rape in five is ever reported to the police, and that only one in five of those ever results in a conviction, and the chances of a man in the United Kingdom being falsely convicted of rape are something on the order of being hit by lightning.

Being hit by lightning is not something that I, personally, lose sleep over.

‘False allegations,’ are something that Men’s Rights Activists use to try and shut down any attempts to raise awareness of the facts around rape, to try to better educate law enforcement and the public and the courts in how to deal with rape, and just generally to try and turn any conversation about rape around to How Scary It Is To Be A Man these days. They aren’t an enormous plague upon Men everywhere that needs to be dealt with, and this may explain why, beyond the occasional suggestion that if a man is acquitted of rape his accuser should be automatically convicted of perjury, no solutions are ever offered to the ‘problem.’ Men’s Rights Activists, as an aside, could make themselves useful by highlighting the continuing issues surrounding mental health in men and working to prevent suicide being the leading cause of death for men under 35, but since the only Right they actually care about is that of Men to have sex with any woman they want, I won’t hold my breath. All I’ll say is that it’s truly hilarious how the people who seem to care most about male mental health are the same feminists that MRAs shriek about and abuse online.

Anyway. Where was I?

Oh yeah, Criminal: UK.  False Allegations of rape.

Ok, so, with around one in every one hundred and thirty allegations of rape proving to be false, clearly Britain’s men are not besieged by a tide of scheming harpies trying to extort compo out of them. The scenario that plays out in Criminal: UK is not something that plays out in real life. It’s wildly unrepresentative of the reality of rape investigations, it portrays the powerful, sleazy man as being in some way the victim, and it spits in the face of real victims of rape, who as well as the disbelief and hostility of the courts and wider society face further, potentially career-ending reprisals, if they speak out against a rapist who’s also their boss. Criminal: UK is capable of being a clever, thoughtful show (the following episode featuring the head of a paedophile hunter website proved that) so for them to get this so badly wrong and descend into MRA Fantasy Land is disappointing.

This does buck the trend a bit in terms of recent stories around rape, which have, in the past ten years or so, focussed much more on the dehumanising way victims are treated, and the ways that efforts to reform the law enforcement and justice systems have proceeded at a very slow, often glacial, pace. I really do hope that we’re not about to see the pendulum swing the other way with a glut of stories about the Poor Old Men suffering through all those false allegations that definitely do happen if you look hard enough, but anything’s possible. There have been a lot of complaints in the last two or three years that literature has become too left-wing, so anything’s possible. If there is a left-wing bias in literature it’s because right-wing writers don’t have anything interesting to say (in the same way that right wing comedians generally aren’t very funny), so I genuinely hope that’s not the way we’re going.

Ok, so, this story is unrepresentative of the reality of rape, and is insulting to victims. The part where the show’s two female characters shake their heads and say that they don’t want to believe that any woman would do this nearly made me shout at the TV. The question I think needs answer now is, why?

In the past few years, there have been a number of high-profile instances of rape cases collapsing either during, or just before, the trial of the accused after the police disclosed text messages between the accused and the (again, legally-speaking) alleged victims. These disclosures led to the CPS dropping the case. Now, what’s actually going on here, in the real world removed from the fantasies of Men’s Rights Activists, is that the police and CPS are badly under-resourced and no longer have the staff to go through all the evidence gathered in major cases in a timely and efficient fashion (a decade of continuous cuts will do that to a public service). The British justice system is badly underfunded at every stage, from law enforcement through to prosecutors to defenders and then to the courts themselves, and yet is being expected to handle more complex cases than ever before. The backlog of trials since the Covid pandemic has made an already bad situation even worse, if anyone is wondering. So, when complex investigations take place involving huge amounts of evidence being gathered, the police no longer have the human resources to go through it properly in a quick fashion, neither do the CPS… and neither do the defence teams chasing disclosures. Last-minute evidence disclosures before a trial are the norm, not scandalous exceptions, these days – and it’s made it far more common for the CPS to drop a case just before it goes to trial. But, it’s been with a few rape cases where it’s really hit the news. You do have to wonder why it’s been rape cases collapsing that have taken the headlines, when this happens frequently for all manner of serious crimes.

Going through thousands of text messages is time-consuming to say the least.

Now, my understanding has been that, in all of these cases, what actually occurred was that the text messages emerged showing a pre-existing relationship between the accused and their (again, for legal purposes) alleged victim. They’d exchanged flirty messages, maybe the (legally speaking) alleged victim had invited the alleged attacker round, and with this being apparent the CPS panicked and dropped the cases. The idea that a woman might flirt with a man, or even invite him over, without intending to have sex with him, is one that the courts, judges, and juries, just cannot seem to wrap their heads around, and as for the idea that a woman might invite a man over for sex but then change her mind… well, this a concept that causes the brains of some of our finest legal scholars to melt as they try to comprehend it. How is a poor jury composed of twelve half-witted members of the Great Unwashed supposed to manage? Far better to just drop the case and save everyone’s time.

Juries, incidentally, have proven no better at coping with the idea that a woman might want sex at one point but not at another, later point, than either our finest legal scholars or a sizeable chunk of the male population. The CPS, the media, and the alleged rapists needn’t ever worry.

So, my guess is, Season 2 Episode 2 of Criminal: UK was probably written in response to these cases, intended as a hard-hitting-look at the poor men accused of rape only to be completed exonerated by phone evidence. The format of Criminal: UK makes it extremely difficult to depict the reality of these cases, taking place as it does entirely in and around the interview room (the work of analysing text messages wouldn’t be done by the interview team, during the interview); it doesn’t allow the writers to depict a disclosure days before a trial is due to start because by this stage the investigation is over, the prosecution has begun. And the phone evidence that completely exonerates the men involved does nothing of the kind in reality. It merely establishes the kind of pre-existing relationship between (alleged) perpetrators and victims that most rapes occur in, and paradoxically makes the CPS most reluctant to pursue a prosecution. I get the feeling that the writers were probably at least somewhat aware of this, which is why they made the exonerating text so clear and explicit – Alex is being stitched up as part of a compo scam.

There is, to be clear, no suggestion that any of the women involved in any of the failed rape cases discussed above have tried, or ever intended, to claim compensation from their (alleged) rapists.

As a hard-hitting-look at collapsed rape cases, Criminal: UK fails completely both to show the reality of rape cases, and of rape cases which collapse. The one thing it does get right is that the men accused complain bitterly afterwards of the damage to their lives, although much like the men in question, Criminal: UK misses the point here too. Adequately-, or even dare I say it, well-resourced police forces, prosecution services and defence teams, would be able to gather, disclose, and analyse all this evidence in good time and prevent cases where texts, or other electronic evidence, exonerate the accused individual getting close to a trial. They aren’t being stitched up by Evil Women and corrupt Feminazi police officers undone only by their legal responsibility to publicly disclose all evidence – incidentally, the idea of the police being overrun by corrupt Feminazis is completely delusional, there are many problems with the police but, ahem, that’s not one of them – they’ve been failed by a badly, deliberately underfunded system. And, in a society that recognised a woman’s right to change her mind, I contend that many of these cases would not have been dropped.

I have a lot of issues with Alex’s rant at the end, that there will always be a taint associated with him having been arrested for rape unless the police publicly tell everyone he knows that he didn’t do it. Firstly (and, to be fair, Lee Ingleby’s character does make this point) the English and Welsh justice system doesn’t find people ‘Innocent,’ it finds them to be ‘Not guilty,’ which means that guilt could not be established – not the same thing. I won’t get into Scotland’s whole ‘Not proven,’ option. He’s been arrested and released quite properly. But, secondly, and more importantly, no there won’t be a lasting taint associated with him. Women may become warier around him, if they know about his arrest. Many of his male friends will be lining up to defend him and telling anyone who’ll stand still long enough about how he was falsely accused. He’ll find a whole new brotherhood among men who think they’re the real victims of rape. He’ll be just fine.

I was never sure where this paragraph fitted in so I’ll stick it here. If Alex had been accused by a man of a physical assault rather than by a woman of a sexual assault, the man’s word that he had been attacked and Alex was his attacker would generally be enough to secure a conviction regardless of a lack of other evidence. Courts trust the word of a man over that of a woman. Even without the exonerating texts (or the texts establishing a prior relationship), these men wouldn’t be convicted anyway.

They’ll be just fine. The women accusing them, however, will be forever stuck with the label of liar, false accuser, bitch-whore, slag slut and slapper who was probably gagging for it anyway. Although they can’t legally be publicly named, as R v Evans showed, that won’t stop supporters of their accuser finding them, naming and shaming them, and raking over their entire sexual history anyway.

There’s the hard-hitting-reality of rape cases.

That’s why the majority of stories about rape in the last ten years have, with admittedly varying levels of success, tried to explore why rape and sexual assault is the one crime where the victim is disbelieved, blamed, questioned more thoroughly and extensively, judged more on moral grounds, than the criminal. Crime writers have become more aware of the reality of rape and have tried to shift their narratives accordingly. The loudest reaction has definitely come from those who claim that everyone’s too left-wing these days, and if the changes in the narrative surrounding rape in fiction have been slow and patchy to say the least, any change in public attitudes has been almost infinitesimal. The questions that this raises about echo chambers, and who all this newly progressive literature is actually reaching, would be an entire blog post.

Given that Episode 2 has the highest IMDB rating of Criminal: UK’s second season, I think that there’s a good chance that those of us trying to shift the narrative are really just preaching to the choir, and that a large chunk of the audience is hungering for stories that reinforce their existing preconceptions.

A story actually aiming to look at the hard-hitting-reality of rape cases, and how text evidence impacts them, might have featured an obviously-guilty rapist with a constantly changing story. But, because text messages suggest a prior, flirtatious relationship between them, senior officer DCI Hobbs won’t authorise charges without a confession, which everyone knows will be impossible to get. That’s the kind of thing that happens in real rape cases. That’s the sort of injustice that should be exposed, in fiction as well as in fact, as many times as it needs to be exposed until detectives, lawyers, judges and juries finally start to get the point.

Criminal: UK ignored all the realities, all the real-life injustices and indignities that victims suffer through, to tell an MRA fantasy story. In so doing, they produced one of the worst rape stories I’ve seen or read recently. It was exactly how not to do a rape story.

Criminal: UK is available on Netflix for anyone who wants to check it out for themselves. Don’t just take my word for it, after all.

Want to see if I can do better? Want to see what I think a rape story should be? Then check out my own short story, Consent, on this site by following this link:

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