Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Unaccountable, Unjust and Untutored

The current civil action being pursued by singer Sir Cliff Richard against the BBC in the High Court, for the violation of his privacy by broadcasting footage of the infamous police raid on his Berkshire home in 2014, is a stark reminder of the enormous power of the traditional media to damage irreparably the lives of individuals. In that one fell swoop, Sir Cliff's name and reputation were trashed throughout the globe, while the BBC was congratulating itself on a massive scoop.

Sir Cliff Richard
To hell with the man who had spent his adult life viewed as one of our national heroes. Here was a person with all the trappings of great success and yet (and I have met him) so grounded and so kind; some might argue an almost saintly character. Indeed, because he was so famous and was viewed so highly by us all, the BBC thought they had the biggest story ever and they wanted to squeeze every last drop out of it.

But did they for a moment stop to think it was only an allegation which had been laid at his door? Did it not occur to them that the allegation may not be true, in which case they'd be destroying the man's highly respected name there and then, for evermore? Of course not. He'd been accused of sexual abuse, so he - like anyone else in this situation - was fair game.

It isn't just the BBC who are quick to ruin the reputation of someone accused of a sex abuse crime; it's a mindset which permeates the entire media. And not just the traditional media: nowadays anyone accused of a crime has to contend with the baying, untutored mob, those social justice warriors who trawl the net to find targets for their unfettered bile. No proof is required to start a storm, just an accusation.

Social media platforms, particularly Twitter and Facebook, are awash with vile smears and oft-repeated fantasies. I know this because it happened to me as soon as I was arrested and interviewed in 2012 as a result of some filthy lies which emanated from the mouth of some greedy, opportunistic lowlife. Did the mob pause to allow justice to take its course? Of course not.

One pleasant individual stated a few days after my arrest in December 2012, that if I killed myself, 'It'd be the best Christmas prezzie ever.' How charming. After the jury in my eventual trial, 672 days later, returned immediately with a 'not guilty' verdict, another delightful man, who knew nothing of the case, apart from titbits of ill-informed internet gossip (and someone who had never met me), stated: 'Fuck that verdict, he's fucking guilty.'

Although it can be argued that the vast reach of social media can be empowering, as well as invaluable as a campaigning and marketing tool, it is also evident that terrible harm can be caused by the misuse of current communications technology. None more so than the spreading of malicious falsehoods served up as proven facts by the agenda driven, often ignorant, mob.

Only the super-rich truly have the means to go into battle to protect their reputations in the civil courts, where costs can spiral into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of pounds. Pretty much everyone else who becomes the victim of vile allegations online seems to have to ignore the character assassination as best they can. Sadly, some targets of the internet bullies and conspiracy theorists find the pressure – and its devastating consequences in daily life – simply unendurable and take their own lives.

While it is true that local communities have always been prone to the malignant mischief caused by neighbourhood gossips and fantasy peddlers, the internet has provided these poisonous, malicious types with a means of disseminating their bile and smears to a global audience, (sometimes with the bonus of maintaining their own anonymity). A blatant lie or untrue rumour which is posted online in, say, Sheffield can be relayed and rebroadcast from Stuttgart to Shanghai, via San Francisco and Seattle, within a matter of minutes.

Moreover, the Web also enables ‘birds of a feather to flock together’: conspiracy theorists and other lunatic fringe obsessives are now able to find each other with ease and to reinforce both falsehoods and shared delusions. Bizarre fantasies involving such old favourites as Satanism, evil secret societies or vast rings of wealthy paedophiles involved in the state-sponsored sexual abuse of children, can be quickly and effectively propagated on a worldwide stage, as can targeted attacks aimed at specific individuals, usually celebrities whose names offer instant household recognition.

In this age of unbridled egos, in which every cruel fantasy can be peddled or attributed falsely to celebrities online, who is safe from the smears and poisonous lies of the malicious and unprincipled, who demand the absolute ‘right’ wilfully to destroy the lives and well-being of others (the vast majority of whom they have never even met), under the banner of ‘freedom of speech’?

In common with many unhinged obsessives, most conspiracy theorists are evangelical in their aim of converting others to their warped views, especially the weak-minded, the young and the vulnerable. In this, some online clusters share similar characteristics with terrorist groups: brainwashing potential adherents, enforcing conformity of belief, presenting distorted opinions and fantasies as fact, and attacking anyone who dares to challenge their toxic narratives. It is not an exaggeration to liken the risk to society posed by some of these circles to that posed by the most dangerous of cults.

At a time of ‘fake news’, the most outrageous falsehoods can suddenly be circulated as truth. For many disseminators of lies, the ultimate goal is to win the prize of a ‘retweet’ or a ‘like’ from a social media celebrity or politician, who can then be cited as a ‘believer’ in whichever fantasy or untruth is being peddled. And all of this can be achieved without the involvement of the traditional media, although it often appears that where the wilder reaches of the internet leads, the rest of the news agenda tends to follow.

We are increasingly witnessing the corrosive impact of unfettered, unregulated social media upon our justice system:  as just one example, in recent days it has been revealed that a high profile rape trial in Belfast came close to collapse owing to injudicious comments made online by a politician, prior to the unanimous acquittal of all the defendants by the jury. This case is far from unique as posters and tweeters, who have little or no knowledge of our legal system, regularly circulate highly defamatory material, much of which is probably contempt of court under the sub judice rules which exist (in theory at least), to ensure the right of us all to a fair trial.

As I have noted in previous blog posts, even those defendants who are acquitted by a jury now seem to be considered ‘fair game’ for a campaign of social media vilification, which can even spill over onto the streets. Some of these protests seem to have a lot in common with the mob raging at the foot of the guillotine during the worst excesses of the French Revolution. Justice no longer seems to matter as long as the enraged crowd outside the court gets the verdict it demands. And where the baying mob goes, the politicians tend to follow. After all, popularity for them is the chief driving force.

And long after the trials are over and the judges and jurors have gone home, the fate of the acquitted is still being decided via the internet and the media: online posts and media coverage now seem to have a permanence that ensures spite, bile and lies will be accessible to all who care to type onto their keyboard a person’s name. This means that no matter how innocent a wrongly accused person has been proven to be in court, they are, in effect, permanently on trial online. The lies of perjurers and fantasists are linked to their names in perpetuity. I am indelibly tied to the vile lies of the chancer who made an allegation against me.

Often a decision not to prosecute or an acquittal by a jury is just a seemingly unimportant precursor to being hounded by the arrogance of some injustice collectors behaving like medieval despots. This is one of the reasons why the recent privacy case involving Google and the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ is so significant: surely a person who has never even been charged with a criminal offence, or who has been acquitted by a jury in a court of law, should not have to face a ‘kangaroo court’ of online social justice warriors, along with negative media coverage?

Would it surprise you to learn that although when I was charged with the lies laid at my door in 2013, a certain national newspaper covered nearly a half a page informing its readers of my plight, yet, when I was acquitted a year subsequently, there was no mention at all of the verdict. (How many pages in that newspaper would have been filled had I been found guilty?)

We need urgent legislation to restore anonymity to people who have not been charged with any offence. In addition, there is a very legitimate argument to be made for extending anonymity to those alleged to have committed certain crimes, particularly involving highly emotive sex abuse cases, until the point of conviction. Once an accused has been convicted, then the public will be made fully aware of the proven facts.

There used to be a saying among journalists: 'Today's news is tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping paper.' This is no longer the case as the internet now provides everyone with a permanent reminder of anyone who is even accused of a crime, even if never charged. Two hundred years ago criminals were branded on their foreheads; nowadays the search engines do the same job, only you just need to be accused to be marked for life. Ask Sir Cliff!

3 comments:

  1. Simon, I'm not surprised that the newspapers never mentioned a peep about your verdict. My bf was a fixture in his community and his conviction was prominently featured on the front page of several newspapers; horrific headlines and a story filled with praise of the accuser for being so heroic to face her "attacker". Even worse, some of these stories were penned by friends of his accuser. As this was a wrongful conviction stemming from a false accusation, seeing these stories made me physically ill. And it brought people out of the woodwork who set out to attack my bf, his friends and me on social media. Do I expect the rags to feature him in so prominently on their front pages should we manage to clear his name? HA! I'd be waiting until the 12th of Never!

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  2. Another article telling us the truth, a much underrated factor these days. I read every word you write since it is so eternally refreshing to think that someone at least cares about what is actually true. If found guilty you can expect to be on the front page. There were pages and pages of front page headlines devoted to Savile, but anyone later found to have "made it up" appeared in a small paragraph lost somewhere in the middle of the paper, and lucky to get that. There was no interest in any possible suggestion that people could be "leaping on a bandwagon" and anyone who dared to suggest that was branded a "paedophile sympathiser." What most people recognise is that five hundred cases of offending is unlikely to say the very least. Yet for the first time ever in English history these were all recorded as actual crimes without the accused ever being able to offer a defence or it going anywhere near a court. The terrible price we have paid for "convictions at any cost" and the suspension of truth, is that we know we have innocents in prison, and many others convicted of crimes never committed. It is a deep scar on our country and thus on everyone of us.

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