Sunday 17 February 2019

You can win the verdict but still lose the public

Jackson and Olding are learning that reputations are fragile and there's a price to pay for every decision, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

UNDER FIRE: Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding have all come under fire over their derogatory WhatsApp messages. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
UNDER FIRE: Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson, Craig Gilroy and Stuart Olding have all come under fire over their derogatory WhatsApp messages. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Eilis O'Hanlon

All of us have said things in private that we wouldn't be able to stand over if it ever came out in public. Friends let down their hair in one another's company.

Nobody should lose their job because of it. That includes Ulster and Ireland rugby star Craig Gilroy, who is under fire for taking part, nearly two years ago, in a WhatsApp exchange the morning after a party which led to fellow players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding being charged with rape. They were both unanimously acquitted at Belfast's High Court after a nine-week trial, together with Blane McIlroy, who had been charged with indecent exposure, and Rory Harrison, who had been charged with perverting the course of justice and withholding information.

Gilroy was the player, identified in court only by his initials, who asked about the party: "Any sluts get f*****?"

He was never to know that this crude locker-room talk, as President Trump might describe it, would end up being read out in court as part of a prosecution case for rape, or that his identity would subsequently be revealed in such a compromising fashion.

He wasn't even at the party where the alleged incident had taken place. He was just being laddish with his friends.

It's horrible. It's crude. But career ending? That would be too cruel. Do we really want to live in a vindictive society which ruins people's lives for stupid comments made in private?

Stuart Olding. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Stuart Olding. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Gilroy, who remains unavailable for selection by his club while he is the subject of an internal review by Ulster Rugby, has apologised "unreservedly" for the hurt the message caused, and promised to watch his language in future. Let those without sin cast the first stone.

Now for the but. There's always a but. The but here is that it is perfectly legitimate to argue that this generosity of spirit should not be extended to Paddy Jackson or Stuart Olding.

More than 100 people have even clubbed together to crowdfund an advertisement in the Belfast Telegraph demanding that those two men never play for their province or their country again.

Not because of the alleged rape, for which they were found not guilty, but because, as ad organiser Anna Nolan says, "the WhatsApp exchanges as revealed in court goes against any normal standard of what can be considered acceptable behaviour".

Craig Gilroy. Photo: Pacemaker
Craig Gilroy. Photo: Pacemaker

There are some troubling aspects to that ad, though Ms Nolan is certainly right that the messages which the men shared with friends the morning after the party at Jackson's house were repulsive. The Ulster fly half has himself come out, a week after the verdict, clearly conscious of the level of anger which still exists, to apologise "unreservedly" for the "degrading and offensive" content.

He also acknowledged that public criticism of him was "fully justified", adding that he felt "ashamed that a young woman who was a visitor to my home left in a distressed state".

Jackson's words echo those of Stuart Olding, who came out immediately after the verdict to admit his deep "regret" over "the events of that evening". Both men are in the fight of their lives to save their careers, and the statement is obviously part of that PR offensive.

What is troubling is Anna Nolan's contention that "the IRFU (Irish Rugby Football Union) and Ulster Rugby have a role to play in enforcing moral standards".

Playing for one's province and country is not a normal job. It does involve representing something bigger than oneself; an individual's actions off the field can taint the banner under which they play. That is why there is a code of conduct for players.

Racism and homophobia are not tolerated, so why should the blatantly misogynistic content of those WhatsApp messages be any different?

Giving the green light to employers to police their employees' ethical character would be a dangerous precedent, however.

Where does it stop? Most people would surely recoil from the idea of losing their jobs based on the contents of their mobile phones.

Is that really any different from John McGahern being dismissed from his job as a teacher because the Catholic Church deemed his second novel, The Dark, to be pornographic, after which he was forced to leave the country to find work?

The liberal monitoring of personal attitudes is no more appealing just by virtue of being well meant.

That is still not to say that Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding should have the red carpet rolled out for them.

Craig Gilroy's sin was one of lurid speech. Men need to call out this language when they hear it from friends and colleagues. It's toxic. Ugly.

Everyone has a right to demand a certain degree of respect. Relations between the sexes are coarsened by treating other people as commodities. But it was, all the same, just words.

Jackson and Olding, by contrast, are struggling to rescue their reputations not simply because of what they said in some WhatsApp messages, but because of what ordinary people think about what they did on the night in question. That is not to question the not guilty verdict, though some on social media have, wrongly, done that as well.

It is about acknowledging that what happened was not against the law, while reserving the right to still disapprove of the behaviour all the same, and to draw conclusions about the characters of the men who engaged in it.

Paddy Jackson now admits to feeling "ashamed" that the young woman in this case left his house in a distressed manner, as recounted in court by the complainant herself and the taxi driver who took her home.

That feeling of shame, like Olding's earlier expression of "regret", is an important step towards opening up the discussion about how some men treat women.

It is this disquiet which really lies behind the resistance to Jackson and Olding just being able to slip back into their previous lives as if nothing has happened. The published advertisement is merely an expression of a more widespread distaste.

The legal process is one thing. Public reaction is another. A defendant can win a court case and still lose the battle for public validation.

That is what the two men are now discovering. People are not yet ready to move on from this tale; they still want to unpick its underlying meaning, and the sexual hypocrisies which it has exposed, and hunting down everyone who says something derogatory online about the defendants only fuels the fire.

In that regard, there's a price to be paid for every decision, and perhaps the price which Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding are now paying is a fair one.

Upcoming players would do well to heed the underlying lesson. If you don't treat women with respect, then others are entitled to think that you are probably not someone they want representing them on the provincial or international stage.

Sunday Independent

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