The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

The public is a ferocious beast; one must either chain it or flee from it.

There are many unanswerable questions; “Which came first, the chicken or the egg ?”, or “Do we get the media we deserve or does the media the change public opinion ?”.  While it almost certainly true that no-one will publish  things for which there no existing appetite, it is also true that the media can create appetites which were not there before.

We have been aware, for a long time, of the effects of the media on public opinion and attitudes. Sometimes the changes that the media encourages are benevolent and beneficial. For example the displays of tolerance, and the portrayal of bigots in a bad light,  on television, in films and in other media outlets  has made our society less racist and has led less of us to become bigots. The portrayal of women in active, successful and independent roles has helped counter the aeons of inequality in the opportunities for women and society’s attitudes towards them. In the world of cinema, for example,  the 1961 film Victim helped to start to change our attitudes towards homosexuality and lead us to a less prejudiced and censorious way of thinking.

So we all know that the media can change our attitudes and politics. Every businessman and advertiser knows this when they pay for their bit of media space. Every state know it when it either bans media it disagrees with or when it promotes it own.  The totalitarian states under Hitler, or subsequently under the communists, were  the most active in controlling the media as, they knew, through it they controlled the people.

Perhaps as a consequence of our recognition of the damage that totalitarian states could do through media manipulation we are now more cautious and alert to negative or damaging media interventions. We know that it creates unrealistic views of society in order to manipulate our behaviour. We know that it tries to make us wish to buy things we had not intended to purchase, to want things we didn’t feel we desired, and to need things we were unaware we required.

There has been much written on the harmful effect that advertising,  the fashion industry, celebrity culture and others have on young women through their promotion of unrealistic physical ideals of beauty and the physical form. Similarly there are real concerns about the effects of pornography, and its distorted portrayals of sexual life, on the development of young men.

These are not, however, the things that make me want to flee from modern society. These are obvious and easy to spot and to ignore, or counter. The problem I have is with the unintended consequences of the media’s agenda. The unfortunate result of their inept, but frequent, virtue signalling.

In the world of television dramas, soap operas, theatre, advertising, newspapers and periodicals it is held to be important to promote the diversity agenda. It is a valuable positional good for many people as it is a easy and cheap method to express your good nature and moral credentials. If you want to whiten the brand image of your company, blackened by some scandal of cheap child labour, or chemical dumping, or somesuch, then put out an advert supporting gay marriage. Has your company been found out avoiding paying its tax, but you still want the public to buy your coffee ? Then a high profile support of cultural diversity is what you need. It is just a modern version of the old trick of greenwashing.

The unintended consequence of all of this is a misrepresentation of our society. We are presented with a picture of our society in which a larger group are gay than the 3% who self report as such in surveys, more are of BAME origin than the 13% in the last census, for example. Loving couples in adverts are much more likely to be of mixed races rather than the more prosaic, and more common, same race relationship. In dramas the head of the police team, or the successful politician is likely to be a woman, unfortunately not representing the world as it is, but rather as it is wished to be.

But what is wrong with this ? Surely it will no no more than promote further beneficial change ? I fear that it won’t. It is as much about what is missing as it is about what is said.

What is missing is the white, heterosexual male. If he is in the drama he will be the villain. Indeed, it spoils British crime  drama just now as, no matter how statistically unlikely, you can always guess who the killer will be in the first episode – it is the middle-class male in a suit (You might have guess the black guy, the gang member with the drug problem is a candidate, but no it is the 55 year old solicitor driving the Volvo).  Any traditional character, anyone portrayed as having religious sentiments, will prove to be the moral leper.

Outside the dramas, in the media world of culture and politics the white-male  is the “problem”. A problem that is doubly compounded if the white class male has the misfortune to be working class. White working class males, those who didn’t go to university, seem to the focus for the blame for most things that go wrong in the world. Recently he has been held responsible for Brexit and Trump on either side of the Atlantic.

So what is the outcome of this ? When the world is presented in a way that is quite different to how you know it to be.  When you are not shown as present, as having any part, in the world as it is wanted to be. When you are described as the problem rather than as part of the solution. What do you do ? I think you start to see this aspect of society as alien to you. You start to feel that their lives are far removed from yours. You start to think they must be in some removed group which has interests antithetical to yours. The idea of a “metropolitan elite“, which acts against your interests, seems to be a credible way to make sense of the of the cultural war that you find yourself.

The unintended consequence of these benevolent, but inaccurate, portrayals and this wishful thinking is to push people into reactionary positions and to make them hostile to they very changes you tried to foster. The consequence is that you create the very problem that you thought you already had. We have as people become more tolerate and welcoming over the years. As we become more familiar with our fellows we can only presume that this tendency will continue and improve. Any recent upsurge in bigotry and intolerance is likely to be due to the media’s cack-handed attempts at social engineering.

Voltaire (quoted in the title) was wrong, left alone, people tend to seek out others, they tend to cooperate and form relationships. Our instincts are social, they need to be as we are a social animal. The dangers arise when we are masses goaded or tempted into action. The horrors of our history are the results of the state encouraging us to to think en masse. The killing fields of Cambodia or the ovens of Auschwitz are examples of states altering how peoples think of their friends and neighbours, these nightmares need the individuals’ thoughts to be overridden to be possible. The dangers may be just as great when the results are unintended. Many in the UK and USA should be reconsidering whether their strategies to promote change are having the effects that they wished.

Warnings after Ched Evans

Warnings after Ched Evans

I have watched the sorry story of Ched Evans over the past years with increasing feelings of fear and anger. In 2012 he was convicted of rape following an events during an evening in Rhyl the previous year. During the trial I can recall my feelings, shared by many others, that this young man had unfortunately become a political symbol in the battle over the nature of rape and issues of consent in our society and had suffered a miscarriage of justice.

He was unfortunate because he was a high profile celebrity who was to be used in the battleground of the issue of consent. It was important to many who held partisan ideas on this issue that he was brought down so as to send a message to others. It did not matter that the grounds for his conviction were unsteady, through his trial social media clamoured for his punishment in a strident manner. After his conviction the general media also joined in with calls for further and extra-judicial punishment. Notoriously Caitlan Moran called that his life be  “reduced to ash” in a phrase that sounds reminiscent of bringing back burning at the stake. Articles in the Guardian asked that he be denied any work after he served his jail sentence and that he treated like a pariah while Jessica Ennis wanted her name removed from a stand if Sheffield Football club considered re-employing him. Petitions were organised and companies boycotted all to ensure that he suffered well after he had served his time.

This may have been understandable had the crime been at the serious or severe end of the scale but this had never been suggested as the case. This was not an anger based on hearing of hurt or damage to an unfortunate victim but rather anger based on a desire to change our attitudes to the laws surrounding rape. An anger that was taking as its focus a case which many people could see was flawed and dangerous. Our society now has much more permissive ideas regarding drunkenness and promiscuity and this change has occurred at the same time as a broadening of our views of sexual abuse. This case was where these two issues collided; having a high profile international footballer at its centre allowed the flames of this debate to blaze much more brightly.

Fortunately Ched Evans did not passively accept his role in this drama and he and his family fought for an secured an appeal following which he was acquitted. Many have commented on the financial cost that was paid to fight for this appeal and retrial and this is an important point. It is a horrible thought that, had he not been a wealthy young man with plenty of money, he would not have been able to clear his name. Had he been a joiner or nurse then he may still have the stigma and shame of a rape conviction damaging his life.

But, even after the retrial and acquittal, many on the media will not stop trying to use them in their battles. Ungracious at best, and more commonly disbelieving, in their tone the media has tried to portray his acquittal as an error. The Guardian suggesting that it has set a precedent that future rape victims will be less likely to come forward, Julie Bindell called his retrial a “Rapists Charter” and the popular midday TV programme Loose Women had to issue and apology as their presenter Gloria Hunniford expressed her opinion that the jury got it wrong.

These statements are both wrong and counterproductive. Nothing has occurred in the re-trial other than the overturning of an incorrect decision. There is no change in the law but these statements themselves, by whipping up fear and uncertainty, might deter victims of rape pursuing their case. As Francis FitzgGibbon QC, the chair of the Criminal bar Association, has said :-

“There’s been a huge over-reaction to what this case means. The answer is not very much. The thing that troubles me is people saying it sets the law back 30 years and it’s a rapists’ charter. That is what is going to make people think they daren’t report what’s happened to them. Those cries of anguish are a self-fulfilling prophesy.”

The use of information about a complainant sexual history is controlled by Section 41. This has not changed and only allows its use in specific circumstances when it may prevent a miscarriage of justice.  As Angela Rafferty QC added :-

“It is a disservice to victims of sex offenders to misinform them that the Ched Evans case has put the law back 30 years or has made it a rapists’ charter. That case has not changed the law. The law forbids questions about the previous sexual behaviour of a complainant in sexual offence cases, except in highly unusual circumstances where the trial would be unfair, and a wrongful conviction might result, if the evidence was not given.

“The court of appeal thought Evans’s was such a case. Cases like Evans’s will remain wholly exceptional. There is no relaxation of the rule against this type of questioning.”

A more worrying trend is the oft-repeated phrase, especially on social media, that he has “not been proven innocent“. This is not how our law works. One never has to prove one’s innocence, the court has to prove ‘beyond any reasonable doubt’ that one is guilty. If the court does not prove this then one remains innocent. The presumption is that of innocence. This is an important foundation of our legal system and is seen as a Universal Human Right and is Article II of the UN declaration of human rights :-

Article 11

“(1) 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.

This is a vital safeguard as it defends the weak against the state. We do not have to prove our innocence our guilt must be shown beyond doubt. In the days of the inquisition or under totalitarian states  it may have been necessary to demonstrate that you were good and free from evil but, thankfully, no longer.

To question this principle is very dangerous and could start to undermine our fair society. I fear that this is part of a campaign to weaken this safeguard. It is related to the #Ibelieveher movement when people propose that the complainant should be considered  true before the trial has run its course and evidence been tested. This again takes away the presumption of innocence and is part of a very worrisome trend.

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Though I ams ure many of the people suggesting these changes do so with the best of motives, and none of us would want a rapist to escape justice, but tampering with the fundamental safeguards of the legal system and permitting injustice and miscarriages to occur make us all less safe in the future.