Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Britain’s Rape Crisis review – a harrowing look at a broken system | Television & radio


In any documentary involving the British police there is always a moment where the disjunction between the form and content of what they are saying is so enormous it feels like you are suffering from a momentary dissociative episode. This reaches a possible apogee in Panorama’s Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Britain’s Rape Crisis (BBC One). Detective Brett Turner of the Derbyshire police force is interviewing a suspect who is denying all charges. “I know it’s hard to say: ‘Yeah, all right, I raped my two daughters’, it’s not nice to admit,” he says mildly. “But have a think about what you’re doing to your kids.” He encourages the father to “do the decent thing”. The father of Alex and Chyann – who allege that he abused them from such a young age and so often that they had no idea such misery was not a normal way of life – declines.

The police start putting together the case against him. The young women – barely out of their teens – become part of a system in which the odds of finding justice are woefully, almost hopelessly, small. In essence, Panorama’s investigation is into the fact that rape has effectively been decriminalised, as Dame Vera Baird, the victims’ commissioner for England and Wales, put it in 2020, so small are the chances of a perpetrator being caught and punished.

Beyond Reasonable Doubt opens with the recent finding that just 1% of reported rapes lead to a conviction, the lowest rate ever recorded, and at a time when such reports are increasing. Panorama does not mention a statistic that is surely almost as vital in understanding the scale of the problem, which is: it is estimated that only one in six rapes is reported at all. That puts the actual conviction rate at under a fifth of 1%.

In addition to following Alex and Chyann’s case – which gets more appalling as it unfolds – the team traces three other reports, each emblematic of a different aspect of the current crisis. Fiona’s demonstrates the difficulty of proving intimate partner rape (most attackers are known to those they attack). Sam’s shows the obstacles presented by drunkenness, identifying an unseen assailant and gathering evidence from a public outdoor site. Adam’s is a case of historic sexual abuse by an uncle, so detectives have to go through 40 years of medical and other records, and track down people who might give corroborating evidence..

As ever with Panorama, it is a sober, industrious look at a complicated problem. But while it cannot be accused of sensationalism and probably does better than any other documentary strand would in balancing facts, figures and analysis against the emotionally compelling individual stories, you are left feeling that there is room for more.

At times it’s as if news reports – eg, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) changes five years ago that correspond to lower prosecution rates – are being illustrated, instead of research distilled and presented accessibly to as wide an audience as you might hope an hour-long programme could reach. A little more focus on what could be done to change things – given the increasing unwillingness of victims to report rape when they know a successful outcome is unlikely – would also be valuable.

But the programme does the important work of highlighting the fact that the system is stuck in a destructive cycle, with the CPS second-guessing (potential) juries and declining cases they don’t think will result in a conviction; the police then second-guess the CPS and don’t forward cases they don’t think the CPS will think … And victims make a similar calculation in turn.

All of this – plus many other contributory factors, like the years it can take to get a “strong” case to court after the pandemic’s effects on an already underfunded, tottering system, putting individuals’ recovery processes largely on hold – means that there are increasing thousands of people, overwhelmingly women, suffering at the hands of (even more overwhelmingly) men. The innocent are ballasted by grief, navigating the world with shattered souls. The guilty go free as birds.

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