A Canute-like warning from the Crown Prosecution Service, from the end of June:
The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Alison Saunders will now bring criminal proceedings against Greville Janner for child sex offences.
…As there are now active criminal proceedings nothing should be said, commented on, or shared online which may prejudice those.
Or else what? Nothing, apparently. Type “Janner” into Twitter and you will be presented with an endless flood of prejudicial comments on the subject. It is taken for granted that Janner is guilty, both of the charges before him and of other allegations that can be found online.
The phrase “innocent until proven guilty” is of course something of an over-simplification: we all understand the concept of someone being a “suspect”, and when we read about an upcoming or ongoing court case we are likely to form our own views as to how likely it is that the defendant is guilty. But Twitter is publication, not just our private musings or sounding off down the pub, and matters that are sub judice are subject to publication restrictions. Supposedly.
Perhaps one reason why everyone apparently feels so free to ignore the CPS is because the authorities haven’t exactly been leading by example in recent months. Those coming forward with complaints of historic sex abuse have been assured that they will not only be taken seriously, but that that they will be “believed.” Well, if the police will always believe that an individual is guilty before an investigation has even started, why should the rest of us hold back when it looks like there’s a case to answer?
In the case of Janner, there are two further specific factors:
1. Idiotic comments from people who ought to know better. Here, the prime example is the self-promoting Simon Danczuk MP, who has taken to Twitter to castigate Janner’s lawyers for doing their job rather than considering the feelings of Janner’s “alleged victims”. At least he remembered to use the word “alleged”, but it’s functionally meaningless in the demagogic argument he’s putting forward.
2. There is a reasonable suspicion that the charges against Janner should have been brought some years ago, but that his status in public life meant that allegations were not taken as seriously as they should have been. I can see how some people might take the view that making prejudicial statements is therefore justified, as a counter-balance against a rotten system or as an act of defiance against a powerful elite. But while can all recognise flaws and even corruption in our legal system, the most enthusiastic commentators go somewhat further, imagining themselves to be living in a world run for the benefit of murderous VIP paedophile conspiracies.
Perhaps courts are resigned to the presence of aggressive but unsubstantive prejudicial comments on social media; if trials collapsed each time someone published something stupid, nothing would ever get done. Also, material posted from overseas is outside the reach of UK law, and there is the continuing easy availability of accusatory on-line material that is not illegal because it pre-dates the “active criminal proceedings”. But perhaps we should at least acknowledge that this acquiescence means that standards have slipped, and that a principle of justice has been hopelessly eroded.
It is also should also be noted that some of the Twitter commentary on Janner is not just prejudicial, but also inflammatory, conspiratorial, and generally unpleasant – and it’s not all just aimed at Janner himself. Those who have put forward reasonable arguments against a man with advanced dementia being subjected to a “trial of the facts” have been accused of being “pro paedophile”, while members of Janner’s family are derided as “rape apologists” because they dare to insist that he not guilty (this is the stated view of a Twitter feed supporting Rabina Khan’s bid to become Mayor of Tower Hamlets, on the grounds that such an assertion of innocence acts to “silence” victims*).
There is also some evidence of anti-Semitism. Janner has held senior positions in Jewish organisations in the UK; one of the more prolific Twitterers on the subject has written of “a cluster of high-ranking Jews involved in paedophile activities”. He argues that this is comparable to referring to abuse among Roman Catholics or Methodists, and thus is not anti-Jewish. But this is disingenuous: it’s one thing to highlight an example of abuse and cover-up within a particular religious institution, and quite another to imply, based on a perceived impression rather than evidence, that prominence in relation to a particular ethnicity or faith tradition gives one special protection to engage in abuse. The same user has also promoted materials containing phrases like “multiculturalist Jew” and “Blair’s ‘Jewish Cabal'”, and explicitly confirmed that he doesn’t care whether or not this is anti-Jewish.**
*Footnote 1: The Twitter feed presented itself as “the campaign to elect Rabina Khan as Mayor of Tower Hamlets”. It was formerly @Luftarformayor, and more recently @rabina4mayor. However, Khan’s campaign website links to her own personal Twitter feed rather than to this one, suggesting that it does not officially represent her. Within hours of controversy over the comments alluding to Janner’s family, the account changed its name to @TowHamletsLEFT, with the new tagline: “We support Left candidates within and oitside [sic] Tower Hamlets.”
**Footnote 2: Oddly, the same user has claimed (no link here for legal reasons) to have given important information to John Mann, an MP who is known for campaigning around allegations of VIP child abuse (Mann has referred to a “list of 22 politicians“, which was passed to police in December). If true, it’s an incongruous relationship given Mann’s position as chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism.
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