Scotland's Vulnerable Witnesses and the Democratic Deficit: Reflecting on the Case for Change

  • Tanya Thompson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


On 16 February, 1999 The Scotsman newspaper launched an influential campaign which would lead to a radical overhaul of rape law, aimed at revolutionising the treatment of vulnerable witnesses. This PhD by previous publication explores my experiences as a journalist, working at the heart of the justice system as the Home Affairs Correspondent for The Scotsman over a 16 year period. In a series of articles I highlight the degrading treatment of victims who were forced to endure cross examination by the very men accused of attacking them. The impact of my campaign led to a public outcry and calls for change. Pressure from The Scotsman and dozens of charities finally paid off with an outright ban on the practice.

When the law was changed there was a mood of optimism and hope that legislation would be a catalyst for further improvements. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that our judicial system is failing vulnerable witnesses. Other countries introduced a series of important changes to bolster the rights of victims but Scotland has failed to follow suit. Through an analysis of my investigative journalism at The Scotsman, this thesis discusses the shortcomings of both the criminal courts and the family courts. The aim is to determine to what extent victims' rights in Scotland have changed since the launch of two high profile media campaigns. This body of work will provide a personal narrative of my campaigning journalism and the ethical challenges faced. The Scotsman artefacts expose the failure of the criminal and family courts to protect victims. The role of the press, the dearth of female voices in both the courts and the newsroom and the absence of media ethics training are significant factors.

This thesis will contribute to knowledge by providing a unique analysis of the media campaigns I launched at The Scotsman to help improve victims' rights. My rape campaign had a very real effect on government policy, resulting in a change in the law and a ban on cross-examination by those accused of sexual offences. My artefacts highlight the testimony of victims and demonstrate urgent reforms are needed to enable women and children to give best evidence in court. Through the prism of feminist ethics, power and class, my thesis will analyse why victims continue to be failed by the justice system. Why, for example, was the judiciary fiercely resistant to the Scotsman's campaign to ban cross-examination? And why, more than a decade on, do Scottish judges continue to reject calls to abolish corroboration in rape cases? Smart(2002) makes some interesting observations on the theme of power and the law and how the female experience in the courts is disregarded. It is her contention that women are marginalised in the judicial system because the law is 'deaf to the core concerns of feminism'. (Smart,2002, p. 2). The traditional power base, operated by a largely male elite, denigrates the female perspective. In an echo of the Foucauldian perspective on power, she describes how a male institution, steeped in centuries of tradition, will never serve the rights of women.

My second newspaper campaign highlights the plight of mothers who were wrongly convicted of child abuse and murder. The articles expose miscarriages of justice in relation to the condition, Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy. (MSBP). My campaign prompted a review by the General Medical Council with many parents finally reunited with their children after years of separation. By banning the press from these hearings in the family courts, vulnerable witnesses are denied access to justice. Widespread use of interdicts and draconian reporting restrictions create a veil of secrecy in Scotland's courts.

The final element is the lack of ethics training for journalists and the impact on the press's role as a public tribune. While the issue of media ethics has haunted editors since the Leveson Inquiry, evidence suggests reporters are given little, if any, ethical training in the workplace. My thesis will make a number of recommendations for the criminal courts, the family courts and the press, in the hope of improving the victim experience. Letters of recommendation from MSPs, charities, lawyers and the newspaper industry endorse my work and demonstrate my contribution to knowledge in the field of victims' rights.
Date of Award2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Glasgow Caledonian University
SupervisorDouglas Chalmers (Supervisor)

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