What does it take to destroy a public figure’s career today? A willing liar and an enemy without a conscience. In other words, not much – especially when the public figures in question are politicians. Politicians who run for office. Political candidates with opponents. Opponents with incentives to destroy careers. It is not hard to see where this thread leads us, and we have every reason to avoid that.
US Senator Al Franken, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, Welsh MA Carl Sergeant, and the list goes on. The shockwaves of the Weinstein scandal shook the world from Hollywood to Congress, the Welsh Assembly to Hungarian theatre, bringing down mountains wherever they happen to spread. We have experienced a long-awaited and most welcomed stand up against sexual harassment in the previous month, and we still have a long way to go. However, as new names and allegations pop up every day in our newsfeed, and as more and more people lose their careers and livelihoods, we must raise our voice and stop this unique momentum from descending into a witch hunt. We must not undermine the case through the public denial of the presumption of innocence, even if that means the retribution must wait.
On the 30th of October, the day when Kevin Spacey was accused by Anthony Rapp of sexual harassment, almost immediately after the news broke, Netflix cancelled House of Cards, the hit TV show that Spacey leads, without any further evidence, and there were many who wanted him to be fired immediately. To come to terms with the case, I executed a relatively easy thought experiment. I asked myself, if I could ever be positive enough, based on the information available that day, to accept the destruction of, if nothing else, a truly magnificent career in acting, as such scenario was unfolding on the eve of that Monday, not to mention the life of the accused. The answer was a sadly obvious and unfortunate one. No I would not. No one knows for sure whether such a career deserves to be destroyed, except for the accuser and the accused.Looking at the events of the last month, a clear picture unfolds, how the public and the media presumes immediately the guilt of someone accused of sexual harassment. I understand that we tend to sympathize with those coming forward with sexual harassment allegations, especially concerning the statistically low amount of false charges in this field. However, it is important to see, that the presumption of innocence should know no exception, and denying it to those accused can in fact potentially lead to the rise of fake charges, and a witch hunt atmosphere, without us even realising it. Now, following on that line of thought to politics, we can see the dangerous outcomes that can arise.
The institution sometimes referred to as the system of “innocent until proven guilty” has some very important moral basis in our legal system. It is not an accident that with slightly different wordings, such legal terms exist in various different legal structures, from Roman law to Islamic law to the Common Law, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The system prevents us from sentencing innocent people based on unfounded charges, and, in rather unfortunate cases, guilty people based on unprovable charges. Although the system is applied in the legal procedures, we as a society seem to have forgotten to realise it outside of the courtroom.
The results of such an atmosphere are already traceable. On the 7th of November, a senior Welsh Labour politician, Carl Sargeant, was found dead, after he was sacked from cabinet based on sexual harassment allegations. According to the BBC report, former assembly member Rhodri Glyn Thomas said Mr Sargeant “clearly felt he had been found guilty before he had a chance to defend himself.”
This self-righteous presumption of guilt has resulted in the firing of a senior politician. What is more, it has most likely led to a death of a human being. If there is 0.1% chance that the accusation might not be true as it was stated, which there is, then we might have taken the life of an innocent person. In Sargeant’s case, we know now that he “categorically denied” the allegations. Following on the tradition of such immediate reactions for sexual harassment allegations, we can very easily run into a trap, that although we do not have criminal trials, we end up with long lines of names of people destroyed completely, without even proving that they are guilty. Moreover, it can enhance the numbers of the otherwise relatively low percentage of false accusations, again, without us even realising it.
The optimal first reaction we should have for any sexual harassment accusation would be to accept the point of the accuser, without immediately writing off the accused, but let those involved and the authorities figure out the matter, without the whole world munching on the topic. Rather than focus on the details of specific cases, ignoring that they are often symptoms of larger systemic problems, we should focus less on trying to do the job of our legal authorities so that front page articles can focus more on the systemic problems around sexual harassment, even if it would generate slightly less clicks.