Fifty shades of rape reporting

Last Sunday, The Independent reported on a girl who had, the newspaper claimed, used the novel Fifty Shades of Grey as the source of rape claims against her father. But, amazingly, this article was based entirely on the word of a single source: The father’s defense lawyer, Cathy McCulloch.

I’d like to take a look at this story, regardless of its veracity, and see what it can teach us about society’s lack of critical thought when a rape-related story confirms society’s own biases against alleged abuse victims. I’d like to explore how it is possible to feed the public single-source stories as verified-fact if those stories confirm the unconscious narratives of that society. In this case: this story feeds the narrative that women are not victims of rape, but are — instead — angry and confused aggressors.

The piece begins:

“In a tearful courtroom confession, a daughter has admitted using the best-selling sadomasochistic sex novel Fifty Shades of Grey as the basis for a series of false rape claims against her father.”

But who is the source of this entire account?

The problem begins here: The only source here is McCulloch — the defense lawyer who cross-examined the girl. McCulloch’s biography on the Church Court website, lists a series of cases in which she defends people accused of sexual abuse. In one case, she writes that she minimized a client’s culpability when she “found little-known case” which demonstrated that “Rape of a sibling is not a breach of trust”.

So what evidence, beyond a single-source, is there for this account of this Fifty Shades of Grey rape case?

Sadly, none is given.

As far as the newspaper article is concerned: None is required. Presumably the piece needs no additional evidence or analysis because it confirms a societal bias: Women make up rape stories for revenge.

Reporting on this alleged court case, The Independent simply repeats the lawyer’s claims, saying, “…the daughter burst into tears in the witness box and admitted she had made the whole thing up to teach her strict father a lesson.”

The journalist, Adam Lusher, and the newspaper, is apparently satisfied with McCulloch’s version of events here. There is no inquiry into any other details of the case; or any reference to another source to confirm McCulloch’s story. The troubling question of why a girl would feel so angry towards her father goes unasked. Perhaps the answer is unsettling. Or, perhaps McCulloch’s account is biased.

Or perhaps it is true.

But there is no way to know based on the information presented. The Independent provides no evidence beyond the account of this single-source.

The biggest question here, then, is not: ‘Did these events happen?’ Although even this is ambiguous. The biggest question is: ‘Why does The Independent not care if these events happened as described or not?’

Having read the lawyer’s original blog post, an equally plausible explanation is that the daughter conflated scenes in a book with the abuse her father was putting her through. Then, under intense questioning in a court system that convicts in just 5.7% of rape cases, she was intimidated into retraction.

Whatever the true analysis of this (sadly uncorroborated) court case was, the fundamental difficulty here is that an entire news story, on a socially vital issue, is based off a single source: A defense barrister (not a typically unbiased source of information given the adversarial nature of the legal process). It also makes no reference to any other source.

How this news article passed fact-checking at The Independent is a mystery. The story may not be true, or it may be true, but there is no way of knowing.

What is true is: The Independent either did not care to investigate if it was true; or did not present the results of their investigation. The reader is, therefore, left totally adrift to decipher the personal account of just one person.

And into the void of this unknown, we project all our biases. A horrific example of this is this general response on Reddit; which avoids all critical analysis of the source story and just reconfirms societal biases.

Welcome to the fifty shades of rape reporting.