Wednesday 22 March marked the two-year anniversary for new revenge pornography laws. To commemorate the anniversary, Victims’ Commissioner Baroness Newlove spoke at the Public Policy Exchange event in London.
Her speech is below, this is a check against delivery version.
Many victims of crime will experience offending behaviour typically associated with Revenge Pornography, and will have little or no knowledge about how the criminal justice system works. They will be unfamiliar with how the processes that we know so well, are taking effect around them. For many – it may be the first time they have come into contact with the criminal justice system.
Some, won’t even realise that what they are experiencing is in fact Revenge Pornography. I am pleased that we have recently seen storylines in some of the soap operas (EastEnders) addressing this issue, and especially examining some of the impacts that will be felt by the victim. It is encouraging to know that there is a real drive to raise awareness about the impact felt by victims.
More recently, some of you may have seen the reports last week of a Hollywood actress (Mischa Barton), revealing her ordeal after her former partner had leaked intimate videos of the two of them together. It shows that no-one is immune. But it also shows that despite the fame and wealth that this actress is used to, her experiences as a victim of Revenge Pornography, are similar to those we meet in everyday life.
Victims are subjected to their most intimate and private photographs being shared publicly, and in an environment where they have absolutely no control. They could be seeing photo-shopped images of their bodies, or faces, on pornographic sites; or could be being blackmailed sometimes for money, where they might have taken intimate photos or videos with a previous partner. Victims can be of any gender, age, ethnic or social background and experience Revenge Pornography – the crime isn’t limited to young female victims as many will think.
Victims of Revenge Pornography will experience some quite devastating ripple-effects as a result of the crime. Especially, where images have been shared online, there is a real potential that victims will incur ongoing trauma and distress, every time their image is viewed. Their partner of family might also be affected too. And for those who attend school or college, these victims might suffer related abuse and bullying by their peers. We can’t under-estimate the knock-on effect this crime will have – especially on some of the youngest victims that are experiencing this devastation.
For some, a police investigation and prosecution may present a successful solution. But we all know, this only represents one solution to address the problem that victims will face.
The official offence of ‘Revenge Pornography’ is quite limited. I know you will hear from other speakers on this issue today, but it must be remembered that there are many victims who will suffer from a version of Revenge Pornography, which will not be covered by the official wording of the offence. As I understand it, the offence only covers images shared online.
But those of us here today, know that offending of this nature can be committed offline, or through private communications such as a text to a phone contact; or the good old fashioned poster/leaflet. The legislation of what exactly constitutes Revenge Pornography is unclear, but what is clear is that victims do not have to be violated online to experience Revenge Pornography.
As Victims’ Commissioner, I meet and listen to the stories of many victims up and down the country. In fact recently, I met two women who as victims of domestic abuse, had also been victims of Revenge Pornography.
They told me about how the perpetrator’s abuse was driven by the desire to exert a coercive control. It was clear that by sharing intimate photos and videos of their victims, the perpetrators were maintaining their control over these victims.
In these cases Revenge Pornography can be seen as one part of a much bigger, and complicated pattern of systematic abuse. For some victims, their experiences will go hand in hand with verbal and physical abuse, stalking, hacking emails, placing contact details on escort websites, or denying financial support for children. The list is endless and the impact that is caused on the victim never ceases to appal me.
Today, I want to speak to you today about three key issues. One is how we all give victims the sense that justice has been delivered. The second, is the importance of partnership working to most effectively support victims. And thirdly, the need for professionalised victims services.
Together these three elements will guide you through what I think, as Victims’ Commissioner constitutes how best to support victims.
If I am asked what victims want from the criminal justice system more than anything, I would give a simple one word answer: justice. By that I do not mean vengeance – which is quite apt given that we are speaking about Revenge Pornography today.
What most victims want is to be treated with dignity and respect. They want to be informed of the process and to understand decisions that have been taken. Most importantly, they want to have the opportunity have the impact of the crime they have suffered recognised.
In March 2016, I published an important piece of work which looked at what works best in supporting victims of crime. It examined international evidence to assess how satisfied victims were.
One of the key issues arising from this piece of work, was the sense that victims need to receive procedural justice. By procedural justice I mean victims want there to be an acknowledgement that a wrong has been done to them. This is important for all victims, but particularly those who have no physical scars to show.
Procedural justice also means that those coming into contact with the victim should demonstrate a non-blaming attitude. It means supporting victims, by seeing them as a person. Importantly, it means that the victim feels that they have had fair and equitable treatment.
My study also found that effective multi-agency working meant that victims could be best supported through the crimes they were suffering. This applies to all crimes, but in the context of Revenge Pornography, I want to draw out some key themes.
Firstly, the very nature of Revenge Pornography, and the issues victims will suffer, and continue to endure, means that in most cases there will need to be a joined up response between statutory and voluntary partners. This joining up will ensure that victims are able to gain access to the most appropriate and relevant support at each stage of their criminal justice journey. It means that support services have to be accessible and flexible, so that victims know where to find support and how to reach it.
More than anything this will mean agencies cannot work in silos, but have to work together. In order to support victims of Revenge Pornography in the best way, this will involve a combination of preventative and responsive interventions. For today – I will focus on the responsive interventions.
For example, the cases of the two domestic abuse victims I mentioned a moment ago, show that agencies need to view acts of Revenge Pornography in the wider context, in some cases. Yes it is driven by an irrational need for revenge by the perpetrator, but there is also a huge element of control attached, which may mean that a victim will need a specific type of support. He or she may also need for a number of agencies to work together to address some really practical issues, such as homelessness or financial support. Other specialist domestic abuse intervention services, such as access to psychological or emotional support might also need to be considered. Or medical or mental health services as a result of the trauma the victim will be suffering.
The nature of Revenge Pornography is complex. The offending behaviour needs to be properly understood so that victims can have access to the right services.
In order to support victims in the best way possible, no agency can work alone. They will need to be mindful of each others’ roles and the services they offer, and also be aware of how they can support the victim together.
Professionalised victim services
But that isn’t the only strand – as I mentioned before, a victim’s needs have to be properly recognised. The specific nature of Revenge Pornography offending means that a victim will have very different needs to a victim of say, stalking or harassment. Whilst the premise of the crime is similar, in that the victim will suffer psychological or emotional distress as a result of the crime, their needs will be very different.
On one hand, a victim of stalking will need support that is responsive to the fear and distress caused by most likely one perpetrator. They will need support to ensure they can get through each day, and have the ability to live a normal life, without the perpetrator knowing about the effect they are having. A victim of Revenge Pornography on the other hand, will need support that is responsive to the distress that has been caused by the potentially large numbers of people who have seen their image; or a response to the online comments and abuse they might receive as a result of an image being shared online.
There are similarities – but there are also major differences, and only differences that a professional in this area will be able to identify and effectively act on.
This is why I am calling for the Government and Police and Crime Commissioners who are responsible for commissioning some victim services, to consider putting in place victim advisors as part of their commissioning structures. I see a victim advisor as:
– a trained professional, acting as a single point of contact
– an empathetic and caring individual who understands the victim’s specific circumstances and needs
– with the knowledge to help a victim to access all relevant support services according to a victim’s specific needs.
Victims may be vulnerable, as a result of their circumstances before the crime has been committed, and may become even more so as the impact of the crime is realised. For victims of Revenge Pornography in particular, there are issues of continued or increasing abuse, that may be at play. These might include further acts of criminal behaviour such as harassment, or offences under the Malicious Communications Act.
We know that in 2015, the number of prosecutions under the official offence of Revenge Pornography, were just over 200. We also know that there are likely to be many more victims, who have reported to the police, where the police either took no further action, or where the offence was not committed ‘online’ so didn’t fall under the strict definition of Revenge Pornography.
This concerns me as it suggests that there are victims out there, who are not being identified as needing support – and ultimately, are not receiving it.
It is only by working together that we can best support victims. And this means, from the police understanding the nature of the offence, and the variations by which it might be committed. It means that prosecutors recognise how best to support those victims whose cases do proceed to trial.
It also means that that voluntary and specialist agencies work together to identify individual victims’ needs, rather than looking for a blanket approach, or one that fits the right model.
But in order for us all to do this, we need to keep challenging the gaps and obstacles so that regularly appear – we need to develop a much more victim-focused approach to dealing with this crime.
We owe it to victims to make sure that they receive their procedural justice, and that they get the support they need to move forward and recover from the awful crime they have suffered.