Wednesday 21 August 2019

Comment: Celebrity trial by the baying Twitter mob gives no justice at all

"Trial by media is always a bad idea. Trial by social media would be even worse"

Andrew Lynch

Imagine that you have been sexually assaulted by a major Irish celebrity.

Do you a) contact An Garda Siochana so they can carry out a professional investigation and decide whether to press charges?

Or do you b) pick up your phone, go on Twitter and broadcast your story to the whole world?

Until recently, this might have seemed an academic question. Now it is anything but.

Over the past 24 hours, social media has been buzzing with rumours of sex crimes supposedly committed by a household name from the Irish entertainment industry – and an awful lot of people seem willing to metaphorically hang him without a trial.

If these stories are true, then Mr X should obviously be punished through the proper legal channels.

If not, he is in danger of becoming the new Louis Walsh – an innocent man who was totally cleared of any wrongdoing after similar allegations in 2011 but still says he will “never get over” the trauma.

Either way, every piece of wild speculation on Twitter makes it less and less likely that the celebrity involved can ever get a fair hearing in court.

All this is clearly linked to the recent exposure of Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein as a dangerous sexual predator.

The “Weinstein effect” has already forced a British cabinet minister to resign, left a US senator hanging on by his fingertips and destroyed the careers of showbiz stars such as Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and Brett Ratner.

Over here, the biggest impact so far has been claims of bullying and harassment made against the former Gate Theatre director Michael Colgan.

If victims now feel more confident about coming forward with their experiences, that can only be a good thing. In this country, however, there is still a basic legal principle called “innocent until proven guilty”.

It must be up to a judge and jury to decide into which category someone falls – not the baying Twitter mob who treat stupid jokes and serial rape with exactly the same level of outrage.

The online stories about Mr X are deeply disturbing. Equally disturbing is the fact that so many Twitter users have already taken them at face value before hearing a shred of evidence.

It all feels uncomfortably like a medieval witch hunt, where peasants with pitchforks want to burn someone at the stake because they automatically assume there can be “no smoke without fire”.

Trial by media is always a bad idea. Trial by social media would be even worse – so now is the time to put down those phones and show we are better than that.

Online Editors

Editor's Choice

Also in Irish News