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Larissa Nolan: 'Innocent until proved guilty? Not for court of #MeToo culture'


‘Cancelled’: Comedian Al Porter, centre, leaves court after the case against him was dropped – but has still sufferered trial by social media.. Photo: Collins Courts

‘Cancelled’: Comedian Al Porter, centre, leaves court after the case against him was dropped – but has still sufferered trial by social media.. Photo: Collins Courts

‘Cancelled’: Comedian Al Porter, centre, leaves court after the case against him was dropped – but has still sufferered trial by social media.. Photo: Collins Courts

The Al Porter who walked out of court on Wednesday afternoon was almost unrecognisable to the confident comic who burst into our lives just five years ago.

Gone were the boyish looks, the open-mouthed smile, the mischievous twinkle in the eyes. Instead, we saw a man who looked as though he had been physically beaten; his face bloated, his mouth set, his expression closed.

He had just left Dublin District Court, where a sex assault charge against him had been dropped. The DPP had withdrawn its case, and Judge John Hughes struck it out.

Porter told reporters: "I have co-operated. I have respected the legal process. I have always denied any wrongdoing." He thanked his solicitors for their support over "two years, two long and very anxious years".

It wasn't clear whether he was talking about the lengthy courts process - or the period he had spent in #MeToo jail. Trial by social media seemed to have taken more of a toll on him than the criminal justice system.

Because while the courts of justice have decided Porter has no case to answer, the same rule of law does not apply to the court of public opinion.

He may have been officially vindicated on Wednesday, but now he has been "cancelled" by the online mob, will anything be enough to allow him continue on in his life, and career? Or does our contemporary cancel culture mean that his career has been irretrievably damaged?

Porter was the favourite punchbag of those on Twitter who see themselves as modern-day crusaders of the #MeToo movement, but who seem above all to be out to punish and shame.

It's unlikely the way the court proceedings ended will make them stop and re-think: they don't believe in the basic principle of the presumption of innocence and they don't accept court verdicts. They are never wrong.

They don't permit atonement or rehabilitation, in the main.

They see the courts system as broken and seek to overthrow it - and their solution for what to put in its place is today's version of the Salem witch trials of the 17th century.

They want a new regime, where, as 'The Handmaid's Tale' author Margaret Atwood put it, you are "guilty because accused".

Atwood asked: "If the legal system is bypassed because it is seen as ineffectual, what will take its place? Who will be the new power brokers?

"Understandable and temporary vigilante justice can morph into a culturally solidified lynch-mob habit, in which the available mode of justice is thrown out the window.

"In times of extremes, extremists win. Their ideology becomes a religion, anyone who doesn't puppet their views is seen as an apostate, a heretic. The moderates in the middle are annihilated."

Of course, there was an attempt to "cancel" Atwood for her comments. She was "forgiven" and crowned a hero after her 1985 classic novel became a television hit.

Sociologists confirm we have gone through a cultural shift, moving from the era of dignity - where we used police and courts to deal with transgressions and crimes - into the era of victimhood, where we take our case to the court of social media.

But what does this mean for society? And have we moved into a time where court justice has been usurped by a system where the accuser is always right, and the accused always guilty?

Cahir O'Higgins, criminal law solicitor and human rights advocate, says media has an important role, and intense level of discourse is not a bad thing, but the only place someone should be convicted is in a court room.

"The degradation of due process in any sphere is lamentable and regressive. We're very well served by a robust judiciary, who tend on balance to get it right," he says.

"People shouldn't reach conclusions based on partial facts. When a judge hears facts, it's in a measured, balanced and conscientious way; they are not dealing with snippets of information.

"You're not going to get all the information in a 140-character tweet or a Facebook post. It is a system that creates a danger and an inherent unfairness.

"There's a Latin maxim, 'audi alterem partem', meaning a person is entitled to be heard.

"A cacophony of condemnation and criticism can drown their ability to receive fair process in the courts of public opinion."

Theresa Lowe, a barrister who runs her own communications company, says: "The most important thing from a legal point of view is the constitutional right to natural justice and fair procedures.

"We have a presumption of innocence we are all entitled to, and protects and serves everyone.

"Now we have a social media that is judge, jury and executioner. I totally disagree with cancel culture. It is a rush to judgment.

"Nobody knows the real truth of things, nobody knows what people suffer and sometimes there can be false accusations or wild exaggeration.

"The courts system is the best we have. We have a system for discerning the truth and it is called the legal system. Any of us could find ourselves in this position.

"In a case where someone has been exonerated, I believe there should be a full reinstatement of that person, and every opportunity given to them to go on ahead and lead their life.

"I stand by the old saying: 'Believe none of what you hear, and half of what you see.'"

Irish Independent