Wednesday, May 18, 2011

When Is A Rape Not A Rape?

Well, never, according to received wisdom. But it really is all about the language you use, and whatever the merits or demerits of Ken Clarke's case today, he should perhaps have been savvy enough to know that no-one was ever going to listen to the argument - the issue of rape is simply too emotional for that. But then, that's Ken Clarke all over - determinedly unspun.

Nevertheless, just to see how our media and political system works, it's worth examining the Justice Secretary's remarks and how they have developed into a row.

This morning, he went on Radio 5 Live to discuss proposals to allow people who plead guilty to offences straight away to have their sentences halved. These included people who have committed rape.

Challenged by presenter Victoria Derbyshire on the prospect that this would mean rapists going free after 15 months, he then suggested she had based her proposition on an erroneous figure of five years as the average sentence for rape. Rape, he said, drew far longer sentences.

The 5 year figure is reached by including a range of cases under the general charge of rape - Clarke said this included, for example, consensual sex between an older and younger teenager, where the younger teenager was under the age of consent (although he unfortunately got the age wrong).

The presenter, Derbyshire, interjected with "Rape is rape".

Clarke's response was to say that it wasn't. His clear intention being to suggest that there are a full range of cases, not all of them of equal weight, which come under the rape heading.

Since sentencing guidelines do indeed have a sliding tariff of sentences for judges to use when assessing rape cases, this might seem to be a legally correct point to make. Since it is also clear that rape incidences do differ from case to case, it might also seem to be a fair point to make from a layman's perspective too.

What has happened next is, alas, the sign of our maturity as a political society. Clarke's attempt to actually show that rape sentences were far more severe than his interviewer was suggesting has degenerated into a morass of emotivity and spin. Ed Miliband even managed to keep a straight face when sombrely suggesting that the Justice Secretary should be out of his job by the end of the day. Of course, Clarke's inability to recognise how his response about an issue as sensitive as rape could be viewed bespeaks a lack of instant judgement. But I guess he wasn't expecting his remarks to be divorced so quickly from the context of his conversation.

We live in an age where the uniformity of political dialogue, and its bland, uninformative contribution is regularly condemned. Apparently we want politicians to break away from their careful scripts and occasionally tell us what they really think, to give us the truth. Yet if today's manufactured furore is anything to go by, we are not actually capable of hearing politicians speak more freely, and perhaps with layered responses. We can only cope with predictable and unexciting sound-bites. The idea of a debate, with sometimes difficult views being expressed, has finally been expunged from our society. And it isn't actually the politicians who have done it. It's a media machine which, even with 24 hours to report and respond thoughtfully, is unable to do more than reduce news and comments to their most trivial common denominator.

Ken Clarke's real error is still not to have realised that.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Less than twenty years ago the answer to your question would have been, 'if she's my wife!'