3 The portrayal of police reaction to rape accusation in Broadchurch was refreshing yet idealised, and now we need to see it in reality
Broadchurch comes to an end as both a season and a series today, and its concluding storyline has been receiving much-deserved praise. Its depiction of an idealised police response to an allegation of rape has been refreshing, a stark reality to what we so often hear from real-life victims.
TV shows spark debates across every community they reach, no matter the content. Summer has become almost synonymous with baking, thanks to The Great British Bake Off, while talent shows are so well-loved we’ll spend our own money to vote for a winner.
This undeniable influence is a huge part of why a sensitive and relatively unique take on a rape crisis is welcome. Salacious portrayals of sexual assault and rape on our TV screens have become increasingly tolerated; from Luther and Silent Witness to Game of Thrones, the victim is often a cliché rather than a three dimensional character. But season 3 of Broadchurch gave us just this, in Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Trish Winterman. A mother and ex-wife in her 50s, she is attacked at a friend’s extravagant birthday party.
Rape isn’t the only weighty issue tackled. Rather, it’s a veritable who’s who of societal issues in the sexual assault sphere. Pornography, sexting, ‘slut shaming’, harassment, stalking, gender politics and even lad’s mags have their place. Given the delicate subject matter, the expectation on the show to deliver was palpably high.
Dorset-based rape charity, The Shores, worked closely with the show’s writer, Chris Chibnall, during the research and development stage. Michelle Challis, The Shores manager, has spoken about the importance of realistic portrayals.
“Seeking support following an assault is never easy so we wanted it to be demonstrated that there is dedicated support available and you will be taken seriously and looked after,” she says.
It’s a proven fact that there is a discrepancy between sexual assaults and report rates across the world. Seemingly influenced by this, the show demonstrated a sensitive and dignified first response process. The first third of episode one is dedicated to just this, with the police station depicted as a safe haven. David Tennant’s DI Alex Hardy and Olivia Colman’s DS Ellie Miller arrive quickly and make every request of Trish with gentle clarity. The most minute of details are considered; Miller sits in the backseat with Trish on the drive to the station, then Hardy shelters her from a downpour with an umbrella.
Once inside the police station, a crisis worker tells Trish: “If you’re feeling unsafe or uncomfortable in any way, we will stop. Everything will be led by you.” From taking swabs, samples and fibres to submitting her clothing for evidence and photographing her wounds, dignity is the buzzword for the entire process. She is informed of support available, given a cup of tea, allowed to shower and escorted home. It is as idealised a portrayal as such circumstances could ever allow.
Yet Rape Crisis UK reports that some callers to their helplines have been upset by the show’s portrayal. “Some have expressed anger that their cases weren’t handled as sensitively as Trish’s.”
Indeed, when I speak to an anonymous 29-year-old female rape survivor, she too feels this anger. “It's all well and good presenting the police well on TV, but the experience does not match up in real life,” she tells me.
Rape Crisis agree: “It's positive for viewers to see police officers react with compassion, belief, empathy and understanding. Some rape victims and survivors do have comparable experiences when they report to the police but sadly very many do not.”
The aforementioned rape survivor approached the police two years after being date raped and watching Broadchurch found herself unable to relate to the on-screen depiction. “In my experience, the police were insensitive, managed my case badly and weren't transparent about my options. It felt like they were focused more on protecting themselves than protecting me, and made me feel a million times worse. Afterwards, I received no emotional support, and they eventually dropped my case.”
Rape Crisis say that Trish’s support from Beth Latimer, who plays a specialist Independent Sexual Violence Advocate (ISVA), can make all the difference: “both to the case and to the longer-term health and well-being of survivors. This is why sustainable resourcing for the specialist sexual violence sector is so important.”
While the anonymised victim I spoke to did reach out to the police, many do not.
It’s something Rape Crisis are familiar with: “The vast majority of those who experience sexual violence never report to the police, for a range of complex reasons personal to each individual but undoubtedly including fear of not being believed or of being treated badly by the criminal justice process.”
We can now only hope that the show does encourage more victims to come forward. As Rape Crisis tell me: “Some viewers who have been considering whether or not to report might be encouraged by such a positive portrayal.” But what is needed even more is for them to be provided with an experience that mirrors Trish’s.
Acknowledgement that there is a vast chasm between the Broadchurch portrayal and what is so often the reality is critical. It’s now for the police to follow the example set, and it’s on all of us to be Millers and Hardys.