The lynch mob cul­ture sweep­ing the land now threat­ens all we hold dear

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Max Hast­ings

Un­til the Fifties, the lynch mob was one of the ugli­est as­pects of Amer­i­can life.

In seg­re­gated Southern states, whites seized vic­tims - al­most in­vari­ably black men ac­cused of rap­ing or merely be­hav­ing dis­re­spect­fully to­wards white women - and hanged them.

The sup­posed of­fend­ers, who early in the last cen­tury were num­bered in hun­dreds, were of­ten later found to be in­no­cent. But by then they were dead, and, any­way, only a few lib­eral do-good­ers cared.

To­day, in Bri­tain, we are in danger of re­viv­ing that re­pug­nant cul­ture. Al­most daily we see ter­ri­ble charges laid against both the liv­ing and the dead, broad­cast through so­cial me­dia, in­flict­ing griev­ous pain on a host of peo­ple, some of whom have done nothing wrong at all, while oth­ers have done nothing so base as to de­serve pub­lic brand­ing.

It hap­pens in fla­grant de­fi­ance of li­bel and slan­der law, with­out obli­ga­tion to pro­duce a shred of proof.

This week, a se­nior Labour politi­cian killed him­self, hav­ing been sus­pended by the Welsh gov­ern­ment fol­low­ing un­spec­i­fied al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment.

I know nothing of the mis­deeds Sargeant may, or may not, have com­mit­ted. But it seems pro­foundly shock­ing that he should have been driven to take his own life, with­out the al­le­ga­tions be­ing re­vealed. His fam­ily say they con­cerned ‘un­wanted at­ten­tion, touch­ing and grop­ing’.

It is only the most dra­matic of a long suc­ces­sion of bru­tal claims: peo­ple - in­clud­ing chil­dren - are daily sen­tenced to pub­lic em­bar­rass­ment or out­right dis­grace, with­out ex­am­i­na­tion of ev­i­dence, or a jury’s ver­dict.

In 2012, Lord McAlpine, a for­mer Tory trea­surer, was falsely al­leged by BBC2’s News­night - though at first not named - to be a child abuser.

The Com­mons Speaker’s wife, Sally Ber­cow, had to pay £15,000 dam­ages for join­ing the odi­ous per­se­cu­tion of McAlpine which went vi­ral on so­cial me­dia. McAlpine gave the money to the Chelsea Pen­sion­ers, shortly be­fore his 2014 death, which friends said had been has­tened by this wicked li­bel.

Mean­while, BBC pre­sen­ter Mark Law­son, a fine broad­caster, was sum­mar­ily dis­missed in 2014 from a long-serv­ing role on Ra­dio 4’s Front Row arts pro­gramme for al­leged ‘bul­ly­ing’ of col­leagues, af­ter which he suf­fered a ner­vous break­down. Peo­ple who should have known bet­ter, some seem­ingly mo­ti­vated by per­sonal grudges, joined a witch-hunt against him on Twit­ter and Face­book.

I have writ­ten about the ap­palling treat­ment of Field-Mar­shal Lord Bra­mall and the late Ed­ward Heath. It seems ex­tra­or­di­nary that for­mer Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice Com­mis­sioner Bernard Ho­gan-Howe should re­cently have been granted a peer­age, given his role in hound­ing Bra­mall - an in­ves­ti­ga­tion wor­thy of East Ger­many’s Stasi.

It is even more ap­palling that Wilt­shire’s chief con­sta­ble, Mike Veale, is said to be plan­ning a hand­somely pen­sioned re­tire­ment, af­ter smear­ing the long-de­ceased Ed­ward Heath.

Mr Veale brought pub­lic dis­gust upon him­self by an­nounc­ing that, had Heath still been alive, he would have been in­ter­viewed un­der cau­tion, de­spite his force’s in­quiry hav­ing failed to find a wisp of plau­si­ble ev­i­dence of wrong­do­ing.

What is hap­pen­ing to us, as a so­ci­ety? How can peo­ple - never mind the po­lice - treat fel­low cit­i­zens, liv­ing or dead, with such cru­elty? Do we no longer care for the great prin­ci­ple of ‘in­no­cent un­til proven guilty’?

So­cial me­dia bears a huge re­spon­si­bil­ity - it makes pos­si­ble the prop­a­ga­tion of out­ra­geous charges, with­out ac­cusers be­ing iden­ti­fied or need­ing to jus­tify them­selves, far less of the laws of slan­der or li­bel be­ing in­voked.

Some years ago, I re­ceived a let­ter from a man with whom I was at Char­ter­house School, then serv­ing a prison sen­tence for sex­ual of­fences. ‘How would you feel,’ he asked, ‘if I now falsely ac­cused you of hav­ing as­saulted me be­hind the bike sheds at Char­ter­house?’

I re­sponded with a flip­pancy I would not dare em­ploy to­day, say­ing it was im­plau­si­ble, be­cause at 15 I was ir­re­deemably unattrac­tive to both sexes.

Now, I find it fright­en­ingly pos­si­ble that, when pub­lic pas­sions run so high and on­line malev­o­lence is so easy to vent, some­one could lay sex­ual al­le­ga­tions against me at the touch of a but­ton. I am no more nor less guilty than Ed­win Bra­mall.

Since my for­mer schoolfel­low was con­victed in a court, I had little doubt that (though I re­gret­ted it, be­cause I liked him) he was guilty as charged.

But Welsh As­sem­bly mem­ber Carl Sargeant was never charged with any­thing; nor was the BBC’s Mark Law­son, nor the late Ed­ward Heath.

In among the un­doubt­edly valid al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment be­ing made against some politi­cians, we may be cer­tain there are also mon­strous fab­ri­ca­tions. On an­other front, the Rus­sians - supreme on­line sabo­teurs of jus­tice and democ­racy - are playing the fake news game in the Baltic states, which they aim to desta­bilise.

Putin’s trolls have spread ru­mours that the named com­mand­ing of­fi­cer of one West­ern troop con­tin­gent is hav­ing an adul­ter­ous af­fair with a Lat­vian; of an­other colonel, that he is be­tray­ing his wife with a Lithua­nian.

This may sound comic: but think of the ef­fect on the morale of sol­diers in the re­gion if the Rus­sians suc­ceed in their so­phis­ti­cated ef­forts to wreck these of­fi­cers’ mar­riages.

So­cial me­dia al­ready un­der­mines demo­cratic de­bate on both sides of the At­lantic with a diet of fake news which far too many peo­ple swal­low.

Now, un­sourced al­le­ga­tions threaten also to over­whelm de­cent val­ues. I am dis­mayed by the num­ber of sup­pos­edly ed­u­cated peo­ple I meet, still de­ter­mined to be­lieve Ed­ward Heath guilty of sex­ual of­fences, tit­ter­ing ‘no smoke with­out fire’. But there of­ten is.

As a news­pa­per edi­tor for 16 years, I can tes­tify that a great many de­li­cious, sala­cious ru­mours about pub­lic fig­ures are ab­so­lutely un­founded.

Most peo­ple, whether fa­mous or ob­scure, live rather more re­spectable lives than gos­sip-mon­gers would like us to be­lieve. Our par­lia­ment, like other leg­is­la­tures around the world, is sooner or later go­ing to have to grasp the in­fin­itely prickly net­tle of tam­ing so­cial me­dia, im­pos­ing reg­u­la­tion which must in­clude a re­quire­ment to dis­close the iden­ti­ties of li­bellers and slan­der­ers.

Anger in­creases rather than di­min­ishes with time to­wards Sir Brian Leve­son, the fool­ish judge who pro­duced a 2012 report con­demn­ing Press ex­cesses while making no rec­om­men­da­tions to reg­u­late so­cial me­dia or non-news­pa­per web­sites. He con­cluded that: ‘Peo­ple will not as­sume that what they read on the in­ter­net is trust­wor­thy.’

Some of us said then that, how­ever de­plorable some news­pa­pers’ be­hav­iour - phone-hack­ing and such­like - it was ab­surd to de­ploy a sledge­ham­mer against print me­dia while blithely ig­nor­ing the vastly more fright­en­ing threat posed by Twit­ter, Face­book and their kin.

The RAND cor­po­ra­tion, one of the US’s fore­most think-tanks, re­cently spoke of Rus­sia us­ing so­cial me­dia to de­liver ‘a fire­hose of false­hood’, and it was not wrong. Let me end where I started. Welsh Cabi­net min­is­ter Carl Sargeant may be shown to have be­haved badly to­wards women. It should none­the­less be a source of shame to the rest of us, Bri­tish so­ci­ety, that he was driven to kill him­self with­out any spe­cific charge, let alone a crim­i­nal in­dict­ment, be­ing laid.

His fam­ily say he was ‘de­nied nat­u­ral jus­tice’, and they are right. The in­flu­ence of so­cial me­dia upon us all is cer­tainly ma­lign, ar­guably evil.

Un­less we recog­nise the new lynch mob for what it is - and find a way to cage it - this elec­tronic wild beast will de­vour val­ues that are in­dis­pens­able to any civilised so­ci­ety, fair­ness and trust fore­most among them.

Carl Sargeant (pic­tured), 49, had told friends that, since the na­ture of the charges had not been dis­closed to him, he felt un­able to of­fer any de­fence.

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