There are certain activities which most people would say are simply asking for trouble. Walking across a shooting range in the US bible-belt wearing a T-Shirt with “Gay Vegan Muslims For Hillary” written on it would be such an activity.
Another such activity would be a white, middle aged man writing a piece about the movement most commonly known by the hash-tag #METOO (also referred to as #WHYWEWEARBLACK and #TIMESUP). Well, I’m about to put that t-shirt on and start walking. No, not the Hillary t-shirt, the other one.
In case you have been on Mars for the last few months, this is the movement against sexual abuse and harassment in the film industry which started with a raft of allegations being made against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Other famous names have been toppling in his wake, like a row of high-profile dominos.
Men in Hollywood must be shitting themselves every time they check their Twitter feed.
Let’s get a few things absolutely clear from the outset:
- Sexual abuse and harassment are awful and profoundly wrong, as is any abuse of power. It is also (in many cases) a criminal offence
- There has been a culture of fear and silence in many ‘industries’ since time immemorial and it is excellent news and long overdue that this is being challenged and wrong-doers called to account.
- It has taken a lot of bravery from some women to speak out about such entrenched practices.
- A lot of people have been hurt, physically and mentally and, no doubt, many careers ruined.
I, personally, have been horrified but not particularly surprised by what I have heard about this problem over the last 6 months or so. In the UK the (formerly) revered entertainer and broadcaster Jimmy Saville was revealed, after his death, to have been a voracious predatory paedophile. He got away with it for 5 decades or so.
In the middle of the feeding frenzy it is important to bear certain things in mind especially if we, in the west, are going to hold ourselves out as civilised.
Any allegations of abuse (unless obviously false or malicious) must be taken seriously and looked into but that is not the same as assuming that they are true. An allegation is not the same as a proven fact.
In most developed legal systems there is a principle that the burden of proving that something happened falls on the person who is making the allegation. In other words, if someone is making an allegation they need to show to the required standard of ‘proof’ that it happened. In civil cases, this means on the balance of probabilities (it being more likely than not that the thing happened.) In criminal cases, the allegation needs to be proved beyond reasonable doubt (that is, a reasonable person would, having heard the evidence, have no doubt of the culprits guilt). This is the position in the UK. I believe that it is similar in the US Courts and, indeed throughout western civilisation.
What this means, in practice, is that someone who wishes to sue someone else or a prosecutor bringing a criminal case must show, with evidence, that the defendant is guilty/liable. They have to satisfy the ‘burden of evidence’.
What we seem to be seeing here is that burden being reversed. Instead of the accusers having to make out a case, with sufficient detail to enable a proper response, we are seeing those accused of these horrible things having to ‘prove’ that they are innocent. There seems to be a presumption that if an allegation is made, it must be based in fact.
This is profoundly wrong. Yes, so is sexual abuse and harassment but two wrongs do not make a right.
An alleged abuser should be confronted with specific allegations of what they are supposed to have done and be given an opportunity to respond, through the correct channels. What is happening at the moment is that allegations are being made to the media and there is an instant assumption that there is ‘no smoke without fire’. The media, always keen for a bit of scandal, love it.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not a Trumpite (far from it: the guy is a complete tool) denouncing everything as ‘Fake News’ but ‘Trial by Media’ is very problematic. It usually leads to allegations being sensationalised by people who have an agenda to sell more newspapers or get better ratings and, more importantly, makes it less likely that a fair trial can follow if criminal charges are brought.
To be sure, there is a balance to be struck. The press has a duty to ‘speak truth to power’ and part of that is exposing wrong-doing and abuse, in whatever form that may take. There is also a duty to be balanced and to give a platform to those who have been accused to respond (if they wish to). I’m not sure that the balance is being achieved currently.
The whole thing feels like it is turning into some sort of kangaroo court with a lynch-mob, foaming at the mouth, looking to drag any man off to the gallows on just the mention of an allegation against them, regardless of that man’s version of events or the presence or otherwise of any corroboration for the allegations.
I know it’s not just me who is a bit concerned about this. There have been two high profile interventions in the last couple of weeks or so. The first one, by a group of prominent French Women, most notably the actress Catherine Deneuve, decries the notion that men should never ‘come on to’ a woman (in the old fashioned rather than pornographic sense). It is an interesting intervention and one which is, undoubtedly, informed somewhat by the rather mediterranean mind-set that men are expected to be men – meaning a bit of ‘tactile flirting’ is to be expected, even welcomed by a red-blooded gallic woman. It goes a quite a bit further than most, like me, with Anglo-Saxon sensibilities would be comfortable with, even suggesting that repeated attempts to plant a kiss or touch a knee are nothing to get in a froth about. Hmmm…
In response to which I hear the scream “WHAT ABOUT CONSENT?!!!” Well, quite.
More recently Liam Neeson has also stuck his head out of the trench to ask precisely the question which I pose with the title of this article. Celebrated writer Margaret Atwood has also added a cautionary note for which she has received a lot of criticism from some feminist circles
Now, I like to be clear about what words or phrases mean. How very lawyerly of me.
The Collins English Dictionary says:
“A witch-hunt is an attempt to find and punish a particular group of people who are being blamed for something, often simply because of their opinions and not because they have actually done anything wrong.”
The last bit is quite important here.
Back in the day, as most people know, supposed witches were arrested on the merest whiff of suspicion and summarily executed, often in pretty gruesome ways. Remind you of anything?
People, men in particular, seem paralysed with fear about speaking out against this ‘guilty unless you can prove you are innocent’ mentality which seems to be taking over. Hardly anyone seems to be willing to suggest that there should be any right of reply or, god forbid, any sort of due-process (something which Americans in particular are normally quite keen on).
Before the recent Golden Globes (2018) ceremony actress Evan Rachel Wood (who?) suggested that victims at the ceremony should grab other people in the room and form a circle around abusers. Are you fucking kidding me?! This is without that person even being confronted with details of what they are supposed to have done and being given an opportunity to respond. Is anyone still willing to suggest that this is not becoming a witch-hunt?
Let’s also not forget the impact that allegations will have, unproven or otherwise. Films have been hastily re-shot to excise actors who have allegations hanging over them. I suspect that most of these people will never work in the industry again. Because of the ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ attitude which seems to be prevailing currently, any allegation against an actor is likely to make them instantly toxic as far as the film studios are concerned. Boom. Game over. Even if those allegations do eventually get tested out and that person manages to clear their name the damage is already done.
As if to prove my point, on the very day that I publish this article this little gem of news about Woody Allen hits the BBC website. Dylan Farrow, adoptive daughter of Mia Farrow alleges that Allen abused her when she was a little girl. Ok, so far that is old news. That allegation has been out in the wild for a few years. Crucially, the allegation has been investigated by the police who have not brought any charges against Allen. As I say, old news. Ms Farrow, however, clearly feels the winds of fate have changed and she is enlisting the full help of the #METOO movement to ‘bring him down’ (her words, not mine). Well, at least she is being honest about her intentions I suppose.
What has changed now is this attitude that someone is guilty unless proven innocent and anyone associating with that person is in some way condoning or supporting their behaviour. Look at the reaction of the two rather callow actors who appeared in his latest film ‘A Rainy Day in New York’: they are both donating their fee to charity and expressing regret for deciding to appear in the film.
Just to recap – this is an allegation that has been investigated by the police and insufficient evidence found to charge, yet members of the film industry are already pulling away from Allen and trying to distance themselves from him and his work as if he has already been tried and convicted.
OK, bringing a criminal prosecution requires that the allegation must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. Quite a tough hurdle. So why then does Farrow not bring a civil case against Allen, you know sue him in that good ole’ fashioned American way? She would only have to show that he molested her ‘on the preponderance of the evidence’ (i.e. that it is, on balance, more likely that the thing happened than not). Not a huge evidential hurdle to cross, yet she does not do it. If she felt that she could make out a case she would have issued it, surely? It seems likely that she would have taken legal advice about her chances of success doesn’t it? On that basis is it unreasonable perhaps to conclude that she has decided that she cannot even raise the evidence to stand a reasonable prospect of bringing a successful civil claim against Allen?
So what happens? #METOO gets the incredible traction that it has in the last few months. Nobody wants to be tainted by allegations about somebody else and people start distancing themselves from the accused to protect themselves thereby helping to taint even destroy the reputation of men who have not had an allegation proved against them, to any standard of proof.
And so Dylan Farrow gets her shot at destroying Woody Allen all without having to set foot in a court of law and have her claims properly tested out.
You could say “well why doesn’t Woody Allen sue her for defamation (libel) if the allegations are untrue” and yes, he could if he wanted but that is missing the point. He shouldn’t have to do that for people not to just assume that he is guilty. In America this is known as ‘misplacing the burden of proof’ which is a legal fallacy arising from the false assumption that something is true unless it can be proved otherwise.
You would think that in America, a country well known for it’s love of litigation, this simple principle would be well understood.
If you look at the BBC article again you will see that Alec Baldwin is the only one in the Farrow/Allen business who has correctly assessed the situation. Unfortunately he and others like him are very much in the minority currently.
Trial by media may give instant satisfaction but, as we all know, is not exactly subject to rules of evidence. In the current instance, with the amount of somewhat sensationalised media coverage which is reaching saturation point, the prospect of ‘miscarriages of justice’ seems very likely.
Look, lots of nasty predators are going to get their comeuppance. Good. Is it worth the careers and reputations of some who are innocent just to drag everybody off to the gallows and ‘let god sort it’ out though? I hope the answer to that question is self-evident.
Innocent until proven guilty. It’s a good place to start from.