Amid the open letters and calls for Union "consent workshops", the right to a fair trial is being ignored
Ben Sullivan is no friend of The Tab.
After he threatened us with an injunction and spent Union members’ money on lawyers to threaten us, I have a pretty low opinion of the guy. We spent considerable time and effort to expose his pettiness, vanity and stupidity.
We also broke the story of his arrest on suspicion of rape. I have had to defend that decision to his friends, who say we have ruined his life. A piece in the Spectator by Nigel Evans this week brings home how damaging a rape accusation can be to one person’s life.
But I believe it was entirely fair to name him when he was arrested on suspicion of rape. He is a public figure, the news was about to break elsewhere (and by elsewhere I mean everywhere) and, most importantly, there is good evidence to show naming people who are arrested can benefit the justice system.
If rape suspects are to be given anonymity before they are charged, that is a question for the law, not news editors.
But naming someone is very different to suggesting they are guilty. And some of what has been said and written with reckless stupidity since Ben Sullivan was arrested is astounding.
The open letter published yesterday calling for Ben Sullivan to resign was, in my honest view and in the view of our experienced lawyer, unwise and unfair. Its contents could possibly interfere with the proper administration of justice. That is contempt of court, which carries a penalty of six months in prison and could cause any criminal proceedings to collapse.
Since The Tab and our lawyer made that point to some of the signatories of the letter, many of them have tried to retract their signature. The New Statesman and the Cherwell pulled the letter from their websites after we got in touch.
Chunks of that letter, which can’t be reproduced here, may affect a jury member’s opinion of Ben Sullivan if they had read it. And it was signed by respected people who call themselves journalists, such as Laurie Penny and Caroline Criado-Perez. It was also briefly published by the New Statesman. Their names carry weight, and have an enormous impact on people’s opinions. I think they have behaved irresponsibly.
Do those people know for sure that Ben Sullivan is guilty? It actually doesn’t matter, because it isn’t for them to decide. The irony is that by potentially affecting the outcome of a trial, these outspoken people may lead to criminal proceedings being abandoned, the result they presumably dread the most.
Oxford, like most universities and most ancient institutions, has a problem with sexism. There is, rightly, a growing clamour for more to be done about sexual assault.
For the last few years the tide has been turning against an entrenched culture of sexism that ranges from casual, idiotic behaviour to extreme violence. Now is the time for things to change forever, for better.
But there is a danger of this turning into a moral panic, a witch hunt where the rule of law and the right to a fair trial are put at risk. No one will benefit from that.
I spoke to Ben Sullivan himself the night before police woke him in his bed to arrest him. He vehemently denied the allegations were true.
Do I believe him? It doesn’t matter – I’m not the one who decides, and nor are you.
Jack Rivlin is the Editor-in-chief of The Tab