Opinion

John Bird: Trial by media, and why we should fear it

As Carl Sargeant's death shows, we have to tread a difficult path between dealing swiftly with accusations and rushing to feverish judgments

The UK news landscape is tightly controlled by a handful of corporate moguls, new analysis by the Media Reform Coalition suggests.

Last Tuesday I packed my bag for Wales. I was excited. I was excited because I like Cardiff and I like sensible conferences.

And the Welsh Assembly conference I was going to was about prevention, inclusion and future generations’ wellbeing, organised by Big Issue Cymru and that particularly admirable group, the Bevan Foundation, created to continue the work of that titan of social justice, Nye Bevan. Yes, he of the NHS, and the deeply fiery commitment to ridding the world of poverty and illness.

Sometimes I buy a book because I like the idea of it. I liked the idea of one book by a particular Bulgarian-French philosopher who wrote one called In Defence of the Enlightenment. It was a finely made hardback, and as a former book printer, I fell in love with the look of it. The publisher had done a grand job of whetting my appetite. I bought it straight away.

I thought of how often in the UK, and across the world, media lynching is often ahead of a fuller investigation

Unfortunately, I tried reading it but it was too lacking, in my estimation, of solid concepts. It was too vague, as is most French philosophy and thinking, I find. In fact, a vast number of those who attempt to explain philosophy seem to use woolly words and vague ideas, that have no heart, no body. As a person who still struggles with meaning in books about philosophy, I initially thought that this was more of the same.

But I had a few minutes before my first train to Cardiff, and I pulled the elegant book down from the shelf, and it flopped open. And there I read something that struck me as brilliant. I’ve removed a few words that are particularly hazy, and this is the rest of the passage I discovered:

“If human rights are the sole unquestionable reference point in the public arena, and the yardstick by which acts are judged, then we find ourselves in the arena of political correctness and media lynching; the democratic version of a witch-hunt – a sort of one-upmanship of virtue – the effect of which is to eliminate the expression of thoughts that diverge from it. As the moral blackmail lurking in the background of all debates, is harmful to democratic life.”

The above was written by one Monsieur Tzvetan Todorov in his book of 2009. What a profound grasp, I thought, of how often in the UK, and across the world, media lynching is often ahead of a fuller investigation. And that we should really await the outcome of due process before we join in the castigations. That the whole human rights struggle unfortunately, at times, is reduced to politically correct, moralist blackmail.

I decided I would take the book with me and finish it – at last – on my long journey to Wales. I bought my ticket, and got on the train only to be told as the train approached Cambridge that the meeting with the First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones, and the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood, and indeed the conference itself, had been cancelled. A conference that was going to look at The Big Issue’s simple method for analysing projects, budgets and policies called the ‘PECC’ methodology. It’s a beautifully simple idea. Is the social project in question working towards Prevention? Or was it Emergency, or Coping, or Cure? Does the project, legislation or intervention help stop poverty from happening – or does it respond in emergency mode, once the problem had occurred? Does it stabilise someone by helping them cope, or was it a genuine cure that alleviated the issue? Or, was it all of these things at once?

I hope that we become frightened and fearful by what can be done when a media-lynching mob takes hold

The Welsh Government and members across the Welsh Assembly have led the way with looking at novel ways to put prevention right into the centre of their political ambitions. It would have been a brilliant conference, no doubt about it. Especially as Sophie Howe, who took up her post as Wales’ first Future Generations Commissioner in early 2016, was also on the bill. But it was not to be.

Not a big rolling news listener or watcher, I was then told that Carl Sargeant, Minister of Communities and Children (who had resigned a few days before) had apparently taken his own life. Accused of behaviour that would bring his office into disrepute, he left the Welsh Government.

I felt a terrible shock, as many people must have who knew the man and had discovered what was happening. Should such accusations lead to the death of a man? His suggested wrongdoings had yet to be aired. Had anything been done wrong around the man’s dismissal that, on reflection, might have been done better?

Carl_cut-out
Carl Sargeant's death raises questions about how we deal with accusations

The Welsh Assembly is a further refinement of democracy in the UK. It brings democracy nearer to the people of Wales who are still suffering from the deindustrialisation of the 1980s. A nation that, we’re warned by the IFS, could see the biggest rise in absolute poverty if planned benefits changes go ahead. This is a tragedy for Carl Sargeant and his family. And for the democratic process many, like him, worked to build.

I thought of what Monsieur Todorov said in his pages and I thanked him for his insight. I hope words such as his are remembered in the weeks and months to come as further exposures and accusations will no doubt flow. I hope that we become frightened and fearful by what can be done when a media-lynching mob takes hold.

A very difficult line has to be walked here. If people have sexually harassed others, then their acts – and the systems that enable them, and cover them up – need to be dealt with. But feverish judgmentalism will only drive justice further away. You’re wrong if we think it brings it nearer.

It was coincidental that a book I bought eight years ago fell open at a certain page, on a certain day. I only wish that Carl Sargeant had been helped so that he could face up to his accusers and not be driven to such an act of despair.

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