06 November 2017


Modern life is weird. We have great new gadgets. Even my cheap phone takes amazing photographs, allows me to edit them, and then post them to a globe spanning computer network.

But I believe that we are also witnessing changes that will be extremely deleterious. One of the ancient principles of justice is that someone accused of a crime is presumed to be actually innocent until they are proven to be guilty in a court.

The burden of proof lies entirely on the prosecution (usually the state). They must show beyond any reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. And they are innocent up to the point where a judge pronounces them guilty.

This principle is article 11 in the UN declaration of Universal Human Rights.

Of course if someone confesses to a crime, that is different. Confession, acknowledges the crime and invites punishment.

I believe that this principle is under serious threat, because accusations are being equated with guilt. This was in fact the post-Roman Germanic system. If twelve people all accused you of the same thing, then you were guilty, unless you could prove otherwise. 

On the other hand, presumption of innocence also presumes an impartial judiciary. And I think it is fair to say that the judiciary and police are not always impartial. They are, for example, often racist and sexist. To my mind this is part of the same problem, it undermines the presumption of innocence if accusations are not taken seriously.

We seem to be veering back to the presumption of guilt. It is tied to the practice of reporting crimes to the media rather than to the police. Of course if the police do not take reports of crimes seriously, it may be argued that they leave victims no choice. So there is blame on the police in this case also. Still we are increasingly seeing this strategy of using the leverage of the mass-media to bypass the judiciary and the presumption of innocence, and to attack people in the public eye.

It seems to me, based on media reports, that, say, Harvey Weinstein is guilty. It certainly *seems* that way. By the Germanic standard, more than 12 people have accused him of similar crimes. I find it hard to believe he is *not* guilty. And in fact Weinstein seems to have made a tacit admission that he has committed crimes of that nature. Where there is admission of guilt, then the presumption of innocence no longer applies.

I also think of Paul Gambaccini, an American living in the UK who gained prominence as a DJ. He is now a patron of the arts, a noted philanthropist, and a BBC radio presenter. Gambaccini was one of many men arrested for "historical sexual offences" during Operation Yewtree. He was suspended from his job while the accusations against him were investigated and became the subject of considerable media speculation. The police were themselves using the media to raise the profile of their work bringing pederasts to justice. Although Gambaccini was never charged with a criminal offence, he was under a cloud for a year, and unable to work during that time. He argued that the presumption of innocence did not seem to apply to him (he wrote a book and is suing the police).

In the case of historical offences that were either not reported at the time, or where reports were ignored, there is a deficit of justice. Clearly there is a huge backlog of allegations that are now emerging. A lot of children we targeted by pederasts and not protected because society as a whole had trouble believing that the problem was there at all, let alone widespread in places like Catholic Churches, Scout groups, or football teams. And the media (especially the UK media) fan the flames, because they thrive of four emotions: anger, fear, disgust, and lust.

The problem is that we cannot suspend the principles of justice in the pursuit of justice delayed or denied. Justice delayed or denied is not justice; it is clearly unjust. But suspending the presumption of innocence is also unjust. Gambaccini was arguably punished by society merely for being accused of a crime. And maybe he does deserve to be compensated for this.

Justice is vitally important. Without it our society will fall apart. People, especially people of wealth/power, have to be held to account. Some of the most ancient rights we have as citizens were wrung from the monarchy by force (or the threat of it). The idea that we all equal in the eyes of the law is a precious victory for ordinary people.

We all have our opinions and intuitions about what we read in the media about people. But the media are not reliable guides to what is going on. The media are a business, whose sole aim is to provide dividends to shareholders (this aim has completely overwhelmed any other aims of business in the 21st Century). They do whatever it takes to make a profit and pay shareholders a fat dividend, limited only by what the law allows, and often not even that (as we know all too well in the UK).

In the end it is only through careful presentation of all of the evidence, and weighing it up in an unbiased manner (without the media hype), that justice can be served. If we serve a lesser mistress than justice, then we are in real trouble. And I suppose that many people would say that we are right now in real trouble because of the past denial of justice. To me this is not an argument for allowing the system to break even more; it is an argument for fixing the system and making it work for everyone.

More than most countries, Britain suffers from an "old-boys" network of men (and some women) educated in expensive and exclusive private schools and brought up to see themselves as naturally morally superior in ways that do not relate to how they behave. This means that they don't see themselves as bound by the laws made to keep lesser people in check. It is a monopoly on power that any good government would smash; but of course they are the government (and more recently the so-called Labour Party was run by them as well). In fact so much progress had been made in the UK that in 1979 a woman who was not part of that social elite became PM. But things have gone severely backward since then, partially as a result of reforms Thatcher herself instituted. The elite make a show of being socially liberal, while trying to entrench the power of their class economically and politically.

Many depictions of Justice, personified as a woman with a pair of scales and a sword, show her blindfolded. That is to say as blind to the social status of those being judged. What such static depictions don't really get across, is that the sword does not strike until there is a clear judgement. Accusations are not convictions. It is all too easy to create smoke without fire, especially nowadays. We cannot trust the media, they do not serve us, they serve only their shareholders. And the shareholders seem only to be interested in accumulating personal wealth. Justice, it seems, cannot bend people to her will. But the will of the people can circumscribe the power of the ruling classes - and that is where most of our human rights come from.

Arguably, a society is fair to the extent that people have wrested power away from the ruling classes and made it fair.

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