Bah and, indeed, Humbug

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

For those not keeping count, one is a caretaker who has been found very guilty of two appalling child murders, while the other is a man who revolutionised pop music two decades ago, but who has been haunted in recent years by allegations about his sanity and sexual preferences. The reason these two are playing on my mind is not the nature of their crimes, proven or alleged, but the reaction to them. Jackson, for example, is being treated as if he’s been found guilty, instead of just charged. One of the fundamental precepts of our justice system is that he is innocent until proved guilty.

Huntley, on the other hand, is guilty and thus is busy being introduced to the very well-deserved life sentence a judge has given him for Christmas. That’s not enough for the tabloids, though, oh no. They want him hung. Or, better, they want a headline declaring that his mother wants him hung. (Yes, they got it. No, I’m not linking it. I don’t even want to given them the measly hits they’d get from this blog.) They also want a witch-hunt of all the people who are responsible for letting Huntley get away with it. Quite who they are is proving to be a little problematic, given that the only three people in the house at the time of the crime were the murderer and his young victims. However, the papers have settled on the police and social service for failing to spot that Huntley had a history of being accused, and even charged, with sexual assaults and violence. “Something must be done,” say the papers, “the government must act.”

There are two problems with this. The first is that Huntley wasn’t actually found guilty of any of these crimes. With marvellous, stereoscopic hindsight we can see that he may well have been, but, well, remember that “innocent until proven guilty”? That said, in a rare burst of both realism and pragmatism (politicians are usually better at the latter than the former), legislation already exists to prevent people with this sort of history getting jobs near children. It just happens that the Police have been rather shoddy in following the procedures laid down in that legislation. Easy to deal with.

The problem is that sending HUntley away for the rest of his life and chastising some police officers just doesn’t feel like enough to certain sections of the British public. They want blood. They have an Old Testament “eye for an eye” impulse, rather than a New Testament “turn the other cheek” instinct. Our tabloid editors have worked out that pandering to that instinct, and fanning the flames of mob outrage, gets them sales.

The most important reason we have a formal court system is that mob vengeance is no way to dispense justice in a society that aspire to being civilised. It’s a reaction to the truism that individual people are intelligent, but huge groups of people are very, very dim indeed. The more our tabloid editors pander to the worst instincts of society reacting en masse to horrific events, the more likely it is that our politicians will enshrine that reaction in law. As Roy Hattersley was saying on Radio 4 yesterday, most of the wost legislation he has seen has come from that knee-jerk legislative reaction to appease the mob.

The real tragedy of all this is that the real problem behind these events gets lost in the tabloid headlines. The difficult issues that society as a whole needs to address aren’t easily reduced to a five word headline, and so are ignored. If Jackson is found guilty, I’d like to see him in a secure mental care institution, not a prison. I’d also expect to see the more considered heads in society giving some serious thought to the deleterious effects our insatiable appetite for celebrity have on those individuals who fulfil that need, especially those who are sacrificed on the altar of mass-media as children, like Jackson. Quite honestly, all I think we’ll see is a combination of the normal gloating over a celebrity brought low and headlines along the lines of “Paedo Prevent Wacko Jacko”.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.