Saturday 1 October 2016

Who needs proof when just throwing Pat Hickey to the lions is more fun?

The former Olympic Council of Ireland chief is entitled to the same presumption of innocence as every other person accused of a crime

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

'Nonetheless, even if he is eventually found guilty, he’s not a murderer or a war criminal; selling tickets above cost price, of which he is suspected in Brazil, is not even illegal in Ireland' Photo: Jack Guez
'Nonetheless, even if he is eventually found guilty, he’s not a murderer or a war criminal; selling tickets above cost price, of which he is suspected in Brazil, is not even illegal in Ireland' Photo: Jack Guez

Is Pat Hickey guilty? Like most of the people watching this saga unfold from the outside, I haven't got the faintest idea.

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All that's known is that the President of the Olympic Committee of Ireland has stepped down from his role after being arrested in Brazil on suspicion of selling tickets to the Rio Games at more than their face value. Officially, the charges are of facilitating ticket touting, forming a cartel, and illicit marketing; if convicted, the maximum sentence is seven years in prison.

Not exactly a minor matter for a 71-year-old, though apparently a custodial sentence is unlikely.

Hickey himself denies all wrongdoing, insisting before his arrest that there has been "no impropriety whatsoever from anyone in the OCI or myself in the dealing of tickets", and the OCI says that they'll defend both him and their own reputation "to the hilt".

So far, that's all anyone knows.

That didn't stop an outbreak of celebration at the news that Pat Hickey had been marched from his hotel room by Brazilian police in a classic 6am dawn raid filmed by local media who'd been invited along to record his humiliation for the benefit of the curious.

Controversey: Pat Hickey is escorted by police in a wheelchair at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Controversey: Pat Hickey is escorted by police in a wheelchair at the Hospital Samaritano in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Much of the revelry was fuelled by social media. Well, naturally it was. This is a place where truth is whatever you want it to be, and the only qualification for entry to the club is a willingness to toss out serious allegations against people with the same nonchalance as if one was commenting on the merits of the new Justin Bieber single.

Twitter loved the sight of Pat Hickey, still half asleep, being led away in his dressing gown.

They loved it when the Brazilian police put his possessions on show for the cameras, as if his ticket for the flight home was a piece of evidence, and when they released the details of the emails on his phone.

To be clear - Pat Hickey had, at this point, not appeared before any court to face any charges.

One can only imagine the outcry at home if the gardai tipped off the media so that they could film the arrest of a suspect, or invited journalists to read the private messages of a legally innocent person.

The idea that they would automatically accept the word of the police at all is more laughable still, never mind in a country whose levels of corruption in public life put Ireland in the ha'penny place, for all that some would have us believe the country is awash with dishonesty, deceit and dirty money.

Suddenly, the fact that one detective in Rio said of Hickey that "we believe he knew everything that went on" was enough.

It wasn't proof of anything, merely an indication that the Brazilian police believe that proof exists, but "we are continuing to investigate" was instantly translated into "the wretch is guilty as sin, lock him up, throw away the key, let him rot." So on came the jokes and the name-calling and the mocked-up pictures and spit-flecked invective, but there was no disgrace in that, because Hickey is rich and influential, so he obviously had it coming.

Admittedly, some of the jokes were very funny, though alas they can't be repeated for legal reasons, because not everyone has the same licence to print potentially defamatory allegations as facts in the way that the "new media" on the internet now considers normal.

Even when the 71-year-old was taken to hospital with chest pains, sympathy was notably lacking, mainly because his detractors had decided in advance there was nothing wrong with him; and when he was denied bail and taken to a maximum security prison in a system where the most recent Amnesty report says that "severe overcrowding, degrading conditions, torture and violence remained endemic", they just gloated some more.

Because why should they care? They'd already judged and found him guilty - just like all the other people they've accused online of various nefarious crimes, few of whom ever turn out to have actually done anything wrong.

To even suggest that it might be best to wait until the man was at least charged before jumping to conclusions was to invite further attacks from the slabbering mob of defending the indefensible.

Who needs proof, right?

Certainly not those who, with no more information at their fingertips than anyone else, had already tried and convicted the prisoner without giving him a chance to defend himself.

This orgy of self-righteous recrimination is typical of the tenor of discourse on social media, which has become increasingly nasty and intolerant and hysterical, and shows every sign of staying that way. The glee also showed the contempt in which the great and good of Irish society are now held.

The jailing of three Anglo bankers last month didn't take the edge off the appetite, it merely increased the hunger for the next course.

Then we wonder why the Brits rowed in behind Brexit, or why millions will still vote for Donald Trump, despite the string of absurd and offensive things that he's said and done. It's because they're equally sick of the establishment, and want to give it a kicking, in exactly the same way that the resentment-fuelled keyboard warriors wanted to lynch Hickey.

How can we blame them for behaving irrationally when doing the exact same thing ourselves?

One private email which was made public by the police in Rio came from a law firm in Dublin giving pointers to the now former OCI head on how to deal with the arrest of sports company director Kevin Mallon on suspicion of ticket touting.

The advice was that "you should say that at the moment an Irishman has been charged by the Brazilian authorities and is fundamentally entitled to due process and the presumption of innocence." That's not bad advice when it comes to Pat Hickey too.

He may live well; he may think himself a king amongst men, entitled to the best of everything. He may even have a deep reserve of conceit and entitlement from decades at the top of Irish sport, during which time he's survived numerous attempts to oust him or dilute his power. His handling of OCI business may have been less than glorious in the eyes of his critics. He may also have trodden along the way on the toes of a great many people who are now taking some quiet satisfaction in his possible fall from grace.

Nonetheless, even if he is eventually found guilty, he's not a murderer or a war criminal; selling tickets above cost price, of which he is suspected in Brazil, is not even illegal in Ireland. He too is an Irishman who, as things stand, has been accused of certain offences by the Brazilian authorities and is also entitled to that aforementioned due process and presumption of innocence. Though maybe that's the worst part of this whole thing.

It's unlikely that this story will be over soon, it's legally complicated and there may be plenty of twists to come; but if it does end in the vindication of his innocence then those who delighted in his humiliation still won't care, they'll remain convinced that Pat Hickey deserved it. The Colosseum didn't ask for proof of prisoners' guilt before watching them get thrown to the lions, after all. They just enjoyed the spectacle. It seems we haven't progressed much since.

Sunday Independent

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