Will Due Process Be The Final Casualty Of Westminster’s Sexgate?

Sir Michael Fallon - Secretary of Defence - resignation sexual harassment allegations

Facing up to historical injustice while protecting due process rights for today’s accused – the irreconcilable conflict at the heart of #BelieveTheVictim and Westminster’s escalating sexual harassment and assault scandal

Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was quite correct when she likened the torrent of sexual harassment and assault claim now roiling Westminster to a dam having suddenly burst. Just as the Harvey Weinstein scandal led to allegations against numerous other Hollywood A-listers and power players, so the cracks are now spreading across Westminster’s thin ice.

But unfortunately, the release of floodwaters caused by a burst dam has the power to sweep away everything in its path – both those shoddy buildings on weak foundations which deserved to be condemned, but also many structurally strong houses which were up to code, but which the tidal wave refused to spare.

The media (who really ought to be a bit more introspective about the tawdry behaviour and abuse within their own ranks, as is already being uncovered in America) love a simple narrative, and presently even the most serious allegations of rape and sexual abuse by prominent political officials are being reported in the same breath and often under the same headline as relatively minor infractions of the kind which astonishingly brought down former Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon, forcing his resignation yesterday.

Naturally, the social justice warriors of Westminster see mandatory re-education as the obvious solution, and now want elected MPs to go through the same condescending “consent workshops” that the NUS likes to inflict on freshmen students.

Charlotte England of Left Foot Forward writes:

Far from accusing all men of being rapists, consent training aims to clarify what consent means and tackle pervasive myths that contribute to rape culture, which is defined as an environment in which prevailing social attitudes normalise or trivialise sexual assault.

According to Green Party deputy leader Amelia Womack there is little understanding in Westminster of the power dynamics at play between male MPs, senior political party figures and other staff like assistants and researchers. Teaching men what is and isn’t appropriate behaviour is therefore imperative.

No, it is not imperative. At this point, even the most sociopathic MP understands the dangerous ambiguity around consent, for reasons of self-preservation if nothing else. Those politicians who continue to step over the line in 2017 do so deliberately, either because they don’t care or simply have no impulse control. And all the consent training in the world won’t fix that. Meanwhile, perfectly decent and law-abiding people will feel ever-more surveilled and curtailed in their behaviour while too many of the real guilty parties continue just as before.

But then this is always the effect of corrosive identity politics – serious social problems and even crimes are too often drowned out because of the disproportionate reaction to lesser behaviour which does not even fall on the same spectrum. If you go to Defcon 1 over some clumsy and ill-advised flirtation at a Westminster Christmas party then you have nowhere left to go when serious allegations involving rape or abuse of power come into play. Each incident becomes just another indistinguishable piece in the “rape culture” jigsaw puzzle and it becomes that much harder to focus on the real victims and perpetrators.

The difficulty with the more minor allegations which are now emerging in Westminster politics and elsewhere is that the outrage at (and de facto punishment of) the alleged offender (public shaming, terminating of careers, ending of livelihoods) is more a reaction to the general trend or cumulative scandal than the individual sin.

If a town finds itself in the grip of a serious crime wave then public anger and demands for something to be done are quite understandable, but is it right for the same ire and punishment to come raining down on the one-time teenage petty shoplifter as befits the man who makes a career of kicking down front doors and making off with the family jewels? Surely not. But our justified anger at decades of genuine sexual harassment and abuses of power is threatening to bleed over into other realms – types of behaviour which range from inappropriate to pitiable – which could have grave implications for how we live and work together (and even court one another) in future.

Grazing a colleague’s knee while making an ambiguous comment over dinner isn’t great (and in fact becomes absolutely wrong when a professional power imbalance exists), but the reason that such low-level behaviour can now prompt the resignation of people such as former Michael Fallon is because of a wider, understandable revulsion at far more serious offences such as those allegedly committed by Harvey Weinstein and other prominent people. The delusional middle-aged, middle-ranking male politico who wrongly mistakes the professional attention of a female journalist for a romantic interest is to be slapped down and probably also pitied, absolutely. But do we really need to turn every such incident into the Dreyfus affair in terms of notoriety?

The pendulum has swung from legitimately bad people getting away with patterns of tawdry behaviour and abuse of power for decades while their victims suffered grievous harm toward fundamentally decent people now being at risk of having their lives destroyed over ambiguous, misinterpreted behaviour or even unfounded malicious allegations. If there was a middle ground anywhere here, it has certainly been skipped over in our reaction to this post-Weinstein torrent of accusations.

While we are right to be disgusted at the world of overt sexism, sexual harassment and abuse which is slowly, painfully being consigned to history, we also have a duty to consider what kind of world we want to create in its place. If we truly want to go down a road where every alleged victim is believed and punishment meted out without due process or any threshold for evidence then we will midwife a brave new world where any public career and reputation can be ruined by a single malicious or disputed allegation. This may soon prompt concerned individuals to hedge against the risk of being brought down by false charges, meaning that every single personal interaction must be witnessed, every woman or vulnerable man permanently chaperoned and everybody permanently surveilled for their own safety, perhaps in the same manner that many American police forces are now outfitting their officers with body cameras.

But this immediately raises privacy concerns. People were sufficiently unhappy at the potential privacy issues presented by Google glasses that this promising prototype product had to be discontinued before making it to mass market. But the kind of constant surveillance required to provide sufficient personal insurance against a formalised “believe the accuser” culture – where the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” is abandoned – makes Google glasses seem tame by comparison.

If we are to avoid going down this extreme road then we at least need to set clearer rules about workplace interactions, so as to remove the ambiguities which lead to the “grey area” where many disputed events currently fall. We will need draconian rules prohibiting any romantic or sexual relations with coworkers that might seem more appropriate to the military than office-based professional work environments. There will need to be a blanket ban on any such relations, with the penalty for any transgression being instant termination regardless of whether or not the the encounter or relationship in question is consensual. Human Resources departments of firms large and small will need to staff up in order to carry out the inquisitorial new role assigned to them. If your parents met while working together, they must become the last generation which ever does so.

And if this seems excessive them we must step back from the brink and think again about whether casually discarding the time-honoured principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is a step that we are willing to take, particularly given the grave ramifications and precedent that doing so may set. Do these new rules apply only to accusations where there is a power imbalance (such as in the workplace) or will we apply them to purely social interactions between equals, too? How do we define “equals”? Will there be any statute of limitations on historic allegations? Will there be any evidentiary standard whatsoever? How will this new reality dovetail with existing laws governing libel and defamation, or to one’s ability to bring civil suit against an accuser for loss of future career earnings?

We must also ask ourselves how much collateral damage we are willing to accept in our effort to make right past wrongs. There are many valid and totally understandable reasons why a victim of abuse or harassment twenty years ago may have kept quiet to this day, but it is also plainly the case that any form of proof in terms of DNA, CCTV footage or retained correspondence is much less likely to exist, in which case it becomes one person’s word against another’s. We then have to decide to what extent we are willing to atone for historical societal sins by lowering the evidentiary standard and always believing the victim when every further move in that direction increases the likelihood of present-day injustices.

Do two wrongs make a right? Or is there a point where we will have to admit that justice for some historical alleged incidents will simply never be possible? We cannot escape this choice. We may wish that it did not exist, and we may pretend that some mythical alternative exists, a solution where proof for past allegations can always be found, victims always believed and offenders always correctly identified and punished. No such magic solution exists; it is a chimera.

At present we are in danger from swinging from one extreme to another, from victims being outrageously shamed and silenced to being unquestioningly believed without even cursory verification; from no consequences for serial perpetrators to draconian summary justice regardless of guilt. The danger is particularly acute as we suffer under a weak government with the weakest of leaders, a prime minister with non-existent decision-making abilities, who can’t afford any more missteps and is therefore prone to making up policy on the stop to appease whoever happens to be shouting the loudest.

#BelieveTheVictim? There is a valid debate to be had here, with serious arguments on both sides – the “always believe” side putting the emphasis on compensating for a history of past injustices and the “proof, please” side placing its emphasis on the importance of traditional due process. Ultimately, some kind of fudged compromise is all but guaranteed, pleasing nobody even as it acknowledges a messy reality.

Personally, while I lean more towards the “proof, please” side I acknowledge that simply telling accusers that nothing can be done to pursue their historic complaints without documentary evidence is often untenable, and that the rights and presumption of innocence which should always accompany a private citizen do not always fully carry over when the accused is in elected office or otherwise occupies a position of public trust.

But my goodness, we ought to stop and think a little more carefully before attempting a quick fix to a month’s worth of disturbing headlines by overturning centuries of precedent.

 

UPDATE – 3 November:

For what it’s worth, I think Ayesha Hazarika does a good job of explaining the kind of non-draconian, common sense solutions which we should be looking at here, for the Spectator:

But the silver bullet is behaviour. You can have all the Human Resources and complaints systems you like, but until MPs, and senior staffers, understand that their basic behaviour to junior women and men has got to change then I’m afraid the needle will not move. And it’s not actually that difficult. I would hope most people could work it out without the need for a cringey manual but here’s a few helpful tips. When you’re the boss, don’t fondle, grope, cup or lunge at anyone and as a general rule don’t harass people for sex via the oh so clever ruse of late night drinks to ‘help them with their career’. And give yourself a reality check: they’re not inviting it and they’re really not into you. At all. Especially if you’re a 58-year-old man who’s seen better days and they’re someone thirty years your junior who either works for you, needs a job or an interview. Ask yourself this critical question: are you abusing your position to get in someone’s pants? And if all that fails, ask yourself how you would feel if you get caught.

Politicians love lording it over the rest of society about how we behave and how we should conduct ourselves in the workplace. It’s time they cleaned up their act – and it’s really not that hard.

Absolutely. A cultural change which ends this “come out with me for late night drinks to discuss your career (wink, wink)” practice should be encouraged, because it is where professional power imbalances exist that the worst serial offenders always lurk.

 

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

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So You (Allegedly) Molested A Child

If ‘evil’ oil companies and banks can use Crisis PR firms to launder their sullied reputations, Hollywood celebrities need to start demanding the same 5-star service

I am sure that if it has not already happened, there will soon be a lucrative new niche field of crisis PR management opening up to handle (in exchange for extortionate sums of cash) the cases of terrified and often guilty Hollywood celebrities and power-players accused of inappropriate or illegal historic sexual activity with unwilling partners. Lord knows that whoever first enters the market stands to make an absolute fortune, because the response of those individuals currently being tried in the social media star chamber post Harvey Weinstein has been crying out for professional finesse.

One can imagine it now. The sweaty, shaking fingers slipping over the keypad as some panicked A-lister who only months ago was picking up gold statuettes and industry acclaim by the sackload now frantically dials his manager, begging him to kill a career-threatening story about past indiscretions. And who does the dutiful manager turn to? After looking in his desk and retrieving the handy “So You Raped A Child And Paid Them Hush Money / Forgot All About It” public information leaflet, they call the new service.

The polished executives who come to the A-lister’s house make a couple of things clear right off the bat. First, for the love of God, stop apologising for whatever it is you were accused of, and deny it instead. And certainly don’t concede that it might have happened, but you can’t be sure because you were dead drunk and who can remember all the fourteen-year-olds they clambered on top of at a party three decades ago. Not the way to go. That’s Step One.

A forceful denial comes first, and then you need to find something, anything else to dominate the news cycle – that’s Step Two. If you can arrange for senior campaign figures from last year’s presidential election to be indicted on charges of conspiracy against the United States, that should do the trick. Failing that, engineering some other event of geopolitical importance will take the heat off and buy you a moment’s pause to plan Step Three.

Step Three consists of the distraction. You have to understand the climate and culture in which you operate, and that is one totally dominated by the Cult of Social Justice and Identity Politics. In this world, accountability (and associated punishments for wrongdoing) are measured in inverse proportion to your position in the Hierarchy of Victimhood. At all costs, you must be able to refute the charge of being white, male and heterosexual – those three strikes will damn you immediately. Trying to pass yourself off as 8 percent Cherokee has yielded only mixed results in the past, so at the very minimum you should shoot for being gay or bisexual. If you’re looking at potential criminal charges rather than just the end of your career, it is worth considering the merits of transgenderism too. If you actually happen to legitimately fit into of these categories then so much the better, it will help with authenticity.

Once you have settled upon your distraction, integrate it tightly into your public response to the accusation, a response which – to repeat Step One – should not include an apology. The goal is to shut things down as quickly as possible by calling the accuser a liar and then winning sympathy by picking up as many identity politics bonus points as possible in your statement. Now you have successfully dealt with Day 1 of the fallout.

Day Two will require another domination of the news cycle. Assuming that there are no more well-connected politicos to indict on conspiracy charges, this is when you want to wheel out your Unimpeachable Character Witness. Use any downtime on Day 1 to identify this person, get them briefed, media trained and ready to spin a wonderful tale about how appropriate you have been at all times to all people, and how despite having been presented with at least ten gold-plated opportunities to rape a child over the past thirty years, not once did you cave to the temptation. That’s Step Four.

Now, the public may be sceptical of such stage-managed events, so the more people you can persuade to sing from the same hymn sheet the better. You want peers, pastors and anyone else to be singing four-part fugues about how awesome you are, and how you live a life of virtual celibacy outside specified age-appropriate relationships where consent forms are signed and notorised before each individual romantic encounter.

The final immediate action in terms of immediate crisis management, Step 5, is celebrity outreach. At this critical juncture, when you have been accused by a single source, you stand on the cusp of becoming toxic in celebrityworld. One more accusation and you are Hollywood kryptonite. At this point, people you once considered good friends will stop calling, and business acquaintances will suddenly be too busy to meet. Some will outright denounce you on social media.

As a savvy person, you know that at all costs you must avoid – what was that phrase? – ah yes, being cleaved from the herd and left to die in the wilderness. Hug your celebrity besties tightly. Do what you have to do to get invited on a sympathetic talk show where you can come across as shocked by the accusation, flaunt your good deeds and somehow paint yourself as the victim. This is a zero sum game, with space for exactly one brave hero and one villain.

This is the service that any go-getting, ambitious soul should be touting around Hollywood right now, as well as the London West End, Washington D.C., Westminster and a bunch of other places where large concentrations of powerful people with dodgy pasts are suddenly terrified for their futures.

And the best thing about this new market niche is that it will never dry up. Protecting terrified, middle-aged celebrities from accusations of inappropriate, abusive or downright illegal behaviour will not fall victim to outsourcing, automation or technical obsolescence. The entertainment industry will always exist, and so will those aspects of human nature which prompt some guilty people to abuse their positions of power to obtain sexual gratification from unwilling parties, and others to misremember or even falsely accuse innocent public figures of similar misdeeds.

In fact, the only way that this Celebrity Crisis PR business model would ever stop making money is if the denizens of Hollywood stopped being such moralising, hypocritical sleazebags. And there is no danger of that happening whatsoever.

 

Harvey Weinstein - sexual harassment

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Harvey Weinstein Hypocrisy And The Westminster Cesspit

Westminster Big Ben Telephone Box

British journalists have reported and commented extensively on the Harvey Weinstein scandal, yet seem curiously unwilling to lift the lid on the seediness and sexual harassment which routinely takes place within their own industry

In the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (were you as stunned as I was?!) we have seen a range of responses from genuinely shocking and awful first-hand accounts of serious harassment and abuse to the now-obligatory collective guilt lectures delivered condescendingly to All Men.

But I am particularly interested in the response of journalists and commentators in Britain who took the time to report on a sexual harassment scandal unfolding in Hollywood while remaining curiously silent about a similar culture at work in their own industry.

I make no pretence of being a Westminster insider, but in my life on the far, far outer periphery I have attended a number of political functions, meetings, party conferences, boozy book launches and parties where very high profile journalists and moderately high profile politicians were present, and I have seen behaviour with my own eyes which would shame some of those who lent their voices to the chorus of condemnation of Harvey Weinstein and other serial alleged harassers. I have also heard disturbing personal accounts of inappropriate and unwanted advances by married men in the media, though having been relayed to me in confidence, these are not my stories to tell.

The seediness of Westminster politics is reasonably well known, but while political journalists are generally now willing to report on politicians when they come a cropper, most are understandably much less eager to lift the lid on their own sub-clique. Yet ultimately, journalism is no different from many other professions where people work, travel, eat, rest and play with the same group of colleagues in a high-pressure environment. Throw in the fact that politics and political journalism falls squarely into the “showbusiness for ugly people” category and is dominated by big beasts who grew up in a very different Fleet Street era and young people desperate to get a break, and a pulsating atmosphere of illicit romances, scandals and unwanted advances is all but guaranteed.

I have been to events where wine-sodden journalists said eyebrow-raisingly inappropriate things which made others feel uncomfortable, or in some cases made fumbling physical advances which had to be repeatedly warded off by the unfortunate recipient. Most of these incidents amounted to little more than general slovenliness and lechery, the kind of thing which reflect badly on a person but should not necessarily end a career or put somebody in court. But other times the behaviour I witnessed and heard about fell distinctly into the dodgy end of the grey zone.

And yet so far the only people from the political media world to have faced any kind of scrutiny in Britain are the writers Rupert Myers and Sam Kriss – both of whose cases were summarily tried in the fiery crucible of the Twitter and Facebook Star Chamber with no due process. As happened for so long in Hollywood pre-Weinstein, a couple of relatively minor fish in British political journalism are being made scapegoats so that the Big Fish can swim on unsated, undaunted and unchecked.

Much is being written about the bravery (or lack thereof) exhibited by certain individuals in Hollywood in their dealings with Harvey Weinstein and other powerful men accused of sexual harassment. And many of us probably feel rightful admiration for the brave few who first came forward at considerable personal risk, and shake our heads at the powerful A-listers who didn’t once think to risk anything to warn or protect others.

But I am curious about the household name journalists who behave nearly as badly at SW1 events or party conference hotel ballrooms yet go unreported and unpunished year after year. And I am particularly interested in their media peers, who know exactly what is going on and whether or not it fits a pattern of behaviour, and find all the time in the world to excoriate Harvey Weinstein while saying nothing about the atrocious behaviour that occurs right under their noses.

Tom Bradby, former ITV News political editor and current anchor of News at Ten wrote quite a stirring call-to-arms about an unpleasant “lads culture” at his old rugby club and various stag parties he later attended. Yet after all his years at the top of British political journalism he couldn’t think of any relevant anecdotes about his own peers and colleagues of sufficient concern to make it into the article? Perhaps not; Bradby may very well have purposefully avoided many of the booze-fuelled, bacchanalian evening events which make up the Westminster social calendar, and saw nothing. But I suspect that many others of equal seniority and profile to Bradby know exactly what goes on but give their own industry a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

As anyone who works in politics and answers truthfully will attest, Westminster can be a very seedy place. I understand that the ascension of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 saw some dispossessed Labour centrists indulge in behaviour which would have been considered scandalous at King Belshazzar’s feast. It seems likely that Theresa May’s bungled campaign and the trauma of election night this summer saw some similar desperation-fuelled behavioural lapses on the Right.

The two mini scandals du jour – Labour’s Clive Lewis getting a bit verbally carried away at a Momentum event in Brighton or Jared O’Mara having posted unsavoury comments on the internet fifteen years ago as a young man  – barely scratch the surface of what goes on. Indeed, these cases are almost decoys, relatively minor transgressions being seized upon so that the accused can be made scapegoats for the graver sins of a much larger group. One almost wonders whether the enthusiasm with which the UK political blogosphere, print and television media picked up these stories was a way of over-compensating for the profound silence about what takes place within their own camp.

But this seediness and sexual harassment within British politics and journalism will not be eradicated by offering up some scrawny, barely-known writer from Vice or a slightly bigger deal from GQ Magazine as a sacrifice to the Twitter gods. It will take a big fish to land a big fish – a heavyweight figure from a major publication or broadcaster must put their credibility on the line. The world of politics and journalism, like Hollywood, is a very hard industry to crack and those struggling to gain admittance from the outside risk everything by speaking out, even as they are the ones predominantly being preyed upon by grotesque, self-satisfied insiders.

One day – perhaps quite soon, given the rapidity with which Harvey Weinstein fell from grace – one of the big beasts of UK political journalism will be revealed for what they are. Somebody who everybody in the Westminster political/media world has been paying obsequious homage to for years will receive first one allegation of improper conduct, then another, and then a steady drip-drip of accusations until the sudden resignation, admission of “errors of judgment” and flight to celebrity rehab inevitably follow.

And when that happens, we will all be sitting here wondering how it was that so many people whose sole job it is to unearth and report stories of public interest – so many respected, well remunerated household names – somehow neglected to mention what was going on in their own back yard.

And what little scrap of credibility the Westminster media retains will be gone for good.

 

Harvey Weinstein - Meryl Streep

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