Two incidents over the past few days have illustrated an alarming fact: that mob hysteria threatens the rule of law, the exercise of reason and toleration of dissent not just by ideologues on the left but also by their opponents.
Two days ago, the film producer Harvey Weinstein was photographed being frogmarched into a New York court to be charged with rape and sexual assault. The court heard that he had tried to “lure young women into situations where he could violate them sexually”.
Multiple accusations of sexual assault made against Weinstein detonated the #MeToo movement earlier this year. The novelist Ian McEwan, however, told BBC radio yesterday of his concerns that Weinstein might be the victim of a “mob and media circus”.
“We don’t know what actually happened,” said McEwan. “It seems he is a moral monster who has had his comeuppance, but I always like to encourage in myself just a degree of scepticism once the whole mob is in full cry, so I am going to withhold judgments until I have heard the arguments in court.”
Cue foaming outrage by women who leapt to attack McEwan. British author Catherine Mayer tweeted afterwards: “Oh the vanity of these men who think their every thought important And even by the low standards of this discussion, a defence of Weinstein is particularly egregious.”
Another tweeted: “An author of Ian McEwan’s stature knows exactly what ‘mob’ connotes: A mass of wild, hysterical, uncivilised creatures with no good reason to be angry, pitchforks out and goodbye to reason and justice. That’s what we are, for stopping a serial rapist?”
For such people, the very idea that a man accused of serial sexual crimes might be innocent and his accusers not telling the truth is simply unsayable. Anyone who says such a thing must himself be some kind of monster. McEwan’s crime was none other than to uphold the presumption – fundamental to a civilised society – that a person is innocent of a crime unless and until he has been convicted in a court of law.
In the eyes of his accusers, Weinstein is a rapist simply because women have said he is. Verdict first, trial later. This is indeed nothing other than “goodbye to reason and justice”, mob hysteria and nascent ideological tyranny.
The mirror image of this uproar took place around the arrest and jailing last week of the anti-Muslim activist known as Tommy Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon. He was jailed for 13 months after live-streaming a broadcast outside Leeds Crown Court including footage of participants in an ongoing criminal trial.
In a worldwide storm of outrage, Yaxley-Lennon has been presented as a martyr of free speech – the victim of a police state which locked him up in order to silence him and prevent him from telling the country a set of vital but unpalatable truths. Not just his supporters but a number of well-known commentators and other public figures in America, Britain and elsewhere now look very silly as a result of their unfamiliarity with English legal procedure.
For the reason Yaxley-Lennon was locked up was nothing to do with free speech or the nature of his political views. It had everything to do instead with defending the rule of law and the principle of a fair trial.
Once reporting restrictions have been fully lifted, I may write about this further with the freedom to explain things I am not yet allowed to talk about here. For the moment, however, I will say this. The UK goes to considerable lengths to give individuals a fair trial on the basis that no-one is allowed to say a defendant is guilty unless and until he or she is convicted; and nothing must be permitted to interfere with the conduct of a trial including saying or doing anything that may influence or intimidate jurors, defendants or witnesses.
Yaxley-Lennon was convicted of thus interfering with a trial last year and given a sentence of three months, suspended for 18 months on condition that he committed no other offences during that period. The judge at the time said this:
“You should be under no illusions that if you commit any further offence of any kind, and that would include, I would have thought, a further contempt of court by similar actions, then that sentence of three months would be activated, and that would be on top of anything else that you were given by any other court.
“In short, Mr Yaxley-Lennon, turn up at another court, refer to people as ‘Muslim paedophiles, Muslim rapists’ and so and so forth while trials are ongoing and before there has been a finding by a jury that that is what they are, and you will find yourself inside. Do you understand?”
Yet Yaxley-Lennon did indeed commit a further contempt of court last week – to which he pleaded guilty and expressed his remorse – by expressing his views in a way that once again threatened to derail an ongoing trial. That’s why he was arrested and jailed so fast. It had nothing to do with suppressing his views. It was not because he was merely “reporting” on a case. It had everything to do with upholding the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.
Unfortunately, the rules safeguarding a fair trial in Britain are simply not understood at all in the US, where such restrictions on what can be said during criminal proceedings are totally unknown and the right to free speech under the First Amendment carries all before it.
This lack of understanding has helped fuel the mindset, shared by Yaxley-Lennon’s British supporters, that their hero is the victim of a state-sponsored conspiracy to silence opponents of the Islamisation of Britain. Accordingly, they believe – ludicrously and offensively – that anyone who does not take this view of these events and instead criticises him for a very serious contempt of court is a lickspittle of state oppression and Islamisation.
Through this Manichaean mindset, which holds that you are either on one side or the other and there can be no deviation permitting you to reach a conclusion based on the evidence of particular circumstances – and which might lead you to oppose both positions – the #MeToo feminists and the Tommy Robinson fan-club share far more than either side would care to imagine.