Trial by social media- March 30th 2018

Link to article in Belfast Telegraph here:

Just like everyone else on social media, I wasn’t in Paddy Jackson’s house in Belfast on the night of June 28th, 2016 and I didn’t see what happened.

I didn’t walk in on anyone doing anything and wasn’t partial to any sexual exchanges.

Generally speaking when we miss a night out, where shit allegedly went down, we say, “Well I wasn’t there, I don’t really know but I heard “..and gossip ensues.

In this case,  after a 42-day trial with a 12-person jury-later whittled down to 11 after a juror became sick, 30 witnesses including 10 police officers giving evidence,  four defendants, one alleged victim and a taxi driver who drove the lady home on the night in question, the unanimous verdict found all four men not guilty.

Everyone has left the courtroom- robes and wigs were hung back up where they belong, before being dusted off for the next trial. It’s over folks. Grab your coats.

Yet, on social media- the court of public opinion, the trial continues. Despite the clear verdict -Paddy Jackson was found not guilty of rape and sexual assault, Stuart Olding was found not guilty of rape, Blane McIlroy was found not guilty of exposure and Rory Harrison was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice and withholding information, the online show must go on.

Many have come out and shown their support for the accuser via #ibelieveher, while others are taking the side of one or all of the the four men. It’s a veritable feast.

Sure, sometimes the guilty go free. Victims don’t see justice.

There is no epidemic of men falsely accused of rape, while 64 percent of sexual violence cases go unreported in Ireland, according to statistics in a 2014 report from the Rape Crisis centre.

The legal system is long and uncompromising for victims and it discourages women to come forth. Women are very often not mentally available for the rigours of a trial. Some are scared, many ashamed to come forward. The very public nature of information read out in trials, means judgement ensues.

But we live in a democracy- thankfully and the trial went before judge and jury for eight long weeks. A rape allegation is a serious one and can destroy lives and careers and therefore the alleged victim needs to cross examined. What’s the alternative- using medieval tactics? Maybe the unanimous cutting off of balls instead of a trial?

“I’m so fucking angry,” “Please don’t support this blatant disregard for women,” ‘men check your privilege,’ ‘I’m in tears’ ‘I can’t even’ and so it goes on. Online campaigns have ensued- all from the comfort of our armchairs, all by a bunch of people who still weren’t there that night. All by people who seem to forget the cornerstone of our criminal justice system- i.e. innocent until proven guilty.

Rape trials are ambiguous. Its one person’s word against yours. Then you add booze plus time over distance. So, frustratingly, we will never know what went on exactly. But what if like the jury suggest the men are not guilty- does that not stand for anything? Would you like to be falsely accused of rape on social media, even if all charges were dropped?

It’s a crying shame the jury only contained three women. We represent 50 per cent of society and in cases like these, more than any others, we need more female representation.

Some online commentators have suggested, the young lady was the one on trial, and the four men got a short walk in the park. They didn’t. Their reputations are in tatters. Over time, facts will become unclear, people will say, ‘that’s the rapist dude’ when they see the men about town or possibly playing on the pitch. They will forever be associated with this rape trial. A pat on the back from the old boys this ain’t.

In so many ways, this case has been defined by social media, the scourge of our time. The accuser- was said to be ashamed of being filmed and for the film to be put online, and become a subject of ridicule, while the presence of #metoo, which in many cases has stretched the definition of rape, has unleashed a lynch mob onto the web causing potentially untold damage.

As the trail occurred in Belfast and not the republic, the men weren’t anonymous, like they are here. The woman had her knickers handed round the courtroom. There were no winners. The way rape trials are conducted needs to change.

On the plus side, the trial has sparked a discussion about consent. Just like #metoo started a discussion. An important one. Perverts getting hung publicly is great. Sexual harassers getting called up. Fabulous. Women being empowered to speak up. Even better, villains get ostracised and losing their wives, kids and jobs and sometimes they even get punished by law.

But #metoo has possibly stretched the boundaries of rape. Rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, saying something out of line- are all bundled together under the same heading, eventually the lines of what rape is will be blurred.

Women who get raped still get judged. “She wore a short skirt, she was pissed, she was high, what was she doing with that guy anyway- everyone knows he’s a pervert.” This hasn’t changed. This attitude towards women being raped, is as present now as it ever was. Despite being cleared of rape, even the four men still spoke of spitroasting the accuser in messages sent to each other the next day like “there was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas,” “It was like a merry go round at the carnival.” “What the fuck was going on. Last night was hilarious” Well not really. This kind of language doesn’t display respect or integrity.

But they still weren’t charged with rape- except by social media. So as we dismiss any opinion that’s not in line with our virtuous puritanism- we need to remember, that at the end of the day, we still weren’t there. So who are we to judge?