Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Mob Win Again...

I notice with a very weary sense of its utter predictability that John Grisham has now apologised for his comments about child pornography. It was always bound to happen once his words went viral. To be a public figure in the modern world means holding firm to a moral hegemony, where there can be no nuance to an argument nor any attempt to make an intelligent but difficult point. We in the West might scoff at or feel morally repulsed by the fundamentalist ethos of ISIS but is there really that much of a difference when it comes to holding attitudes that aren't codified by unelected rule makers? As the example of Grisham shows, it is simply naive to assume that we enjoy Free Speech and that there are very few ideas or thoughts that are prohibited by law. There is a more pernicious law out there and it is rarely informed by anything as simple as reason or argument. It is directed by media-savvy pressure groups, screaming firebrands of both the left and the right, as well as ever popular 'wisdom of crowds' expressed through social media.

Judy Finnigan ran against the same problem earlier in the week when she made some comments about a rape case. She had been foolish enough to express an intelligent point of view when it was apparent that she should have expressed that tabloid sensibility whereby every example of rape is described as ABSOLUTELY THE WORST CRIME OF ITS KIND. Every rapist is the worst human being, unless, of course, the crime involved anybody even a millisecond under the age of sixteen, in which case the rapist immediately becomes the worst kind of paedophile and, as we all know, death by slow moving steam roller would be too good for them. At times, it feels like we're living through an extended edition of Brass Eye's Paedogeddon except this version isn't really that funny...

This shift into sensationalism is driven entirely by the media and, occasionally, the politicians who follow after them like cawing seagulls in the wake of the fishing boat spreading rotten chub. The sad story of Brenda Leyland fell quickly from the headlines and I suppose there can be no surprise why no national newspaper has ever made much of those tragic events. Perhaps there's no mileage to be had defending the rights of person who spread vile messages via Twitter. And make no mistake, the messages Brenda Leyland were an example of the ugliness that social media brings out in people and which I've been writing about for a very long time. Yet as a symptom of what was wrong with the individual and what is wrong with our society, both needed to be dealt with by people trained to deal with difficult psychological and social problems. The fact is that Sky News decided to act as the police in naming her as an internet troll and then effectively acted as the judge in her subsequent trial by media. What they did was the lowest form of journalism we've seen on these shores in a long time but nobody seems willing to make that point. Do the newspapers fear it might lead to a new Leveson Inquiry?

The voice of the braying mob is everywhere to be seen around the case of Brenda Leyland. On the afternoon of Brenda Leyland's death, I watch in incredulity as BBC News 24 covered the story by asking how celebrities might be protected from attacks on Twitter. Establishment figures, such as Carole Malone writing in the Mirror, were quite happy to turn the story from one about the media going too far into a story about an individual abusing their freedom of speech.
And as tragic as Brenda Leyland’s death is police and journalists cannot be expected NOT to confront those who have threatened murder or been vicious for fear they might kill themselves.

In response to that, perhaps one need only quote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights whose article 11 states: "Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence". Even Iran has a clause that protects the individual in the face of criminal allegations: "Innocence is to be presumed, and no one is to be held guilty of a charge unless his or her guilt has been established by a competent court". Of course, many would question the competence of Iranian courts but are they really less fair than trial by a television channel or newspaper desperate to sell advertising space by rousing the emotions of the popular mob? When does Brenda Leyland get her day in court? When does a judge get to rule in the case and comment on the actions of Sky News and others who placed a clearly vulnerable individual in an impossible position?

Talking to friends and family over the past year or two, I've often found myself in a difficult position arguing the case for people who I instinctively want to condemn. I hope I'm not the only one who tries to look beyond the individual and look at the system that is testing their guilt. You have to ask yourself: would you trust that system if you were convicted of something for which you were entirely innocent? It's easy to overlook flaws in the system when the system is meting out justice on an internet troll, celebrity groper, rapist, or paedophile. Yet the very same system could equally be used to try a libertarian, a whistle blower,  a person who simply believes in something different to the majority. When Russell Brand is brought up on charges of sedition, perhaps the attitude of the media might change...

True legal argument tends to be extremely dry because it is very much about the nuance. Critics may scoff and point to lawyer's obsession with minutia as a reason why the law too often fails. However, isn't it preferable to the rule of the mob we see played out on our screens? All I would ever hope for is a climate where intelligent people can hold reasoned debates, where people like John Grisham and Judy Finnigan can express their views and that people will listen and think. Forced 'apologies' mean nothing other than they've been cowed by the mob and the mob already holds too much power in our society. ISIS may be a frightening, violent and hateful present but it's a different mob in our looming future that we should perhaps fear the most.

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