Facebook hunt ‘tracks wife’s rapist’.
This kind of vigilante response is scarcely a new thing; albeit that the novel use of social media gives the situation an up-to-date, technological twist. The key word here is empowerment: the proliferation of the internet and, specifically, social networking applications like Facebook has empowered the public at large to take matters otherwise beyond their control into their own hands.
In much the same way that aspiring pop musicians now have a new means to bypass a hierarchical institution (the record industry) whose stock has been devalued by corruption and complacency; now victims of crime have a new means to bypass a hierarchical institution (the police and judiciary) whose stock has been devalued by corruption and complacency.
With ever more lurid revelations regarding the late Jimmy Savile keeping the issue of sex crime high in the media ratings, it’s a good time to reevaluate our historically inadequate response to sex crime and speculate the impact these new media might have in influencing change.
Legislation to deal with sexual-offenders is already in place, and the fact it’s historically proved so often ineffective is rooted mostly in a failure of collective will to enforce it. There’s something of an interrupt between the legal assertion that rape is a felony deserving of strict punishment and the response. The BBC (as other corporations do) manifests in microcosm a wider societal truth: that the welfare of the individual (victim) is of less import than the ‘brand’ (be that corporate entities, the church, the family etc). Deviants (from the prescribed norm) and whistleblowers are to be discouraged at all costs. As a (human) race it’s seductive and comforting to believe that everything’s basically ok, bar a few ‘bad apples’ but to quote Joe Jackson, “it just ain’t so”.
So I’m uncomfortable with the idea of the BBC becoming the focus of this – for much the same reason I was uncomfortable with Asians/Muslims becoming the focus of recent child abuse allegations/prosecutions in Rochdale. The danger is that the public will be presented with – yet another – convenient opportunity to buy into the comforting idea that the problem – child sexual abuse – arises from particular institutions or communities rather than recognizing it for the widespread, deep-rooted problem that it is. Despite recent efforts on behalf of the Women’s Movement and affiliated lobby groups, this kind of hidden violence is still too often perceived as exceptional. It really isn’t. There’s a parallel with the way HIV/AIDS is still too often perceived as an issue only for gays/drug users/the promiscuous; ‘them’, not ‘us’: denial is a powerful thing. Which is not to say that the BBC shouldn’t be brought to book; as Savile‘s employer it bears corporate responsibility to fully investigate the numerous allegations; co-operate with resultant legal proceedings and where necessary, instigate disciplinary action and provide recompense to victims. Nonetheless, the wider, longer-term solution to crime rests on changing complacent, complicit attitudes within public and corporate life.
The new institutions have a significant – one might argue, pivotal – role to play here. The solution to violence is never more violence and we might not all care to be vigilantes anyway; but we can be vigilant and thanks to an ever-more-accessible stream of information via Twitter, Facebook and other public forums it’s becoming increasingly inexcusable not to be. Witness the recent Nick Griffin furore on Twitter for a fine example of how members of the public has embraced this unprecedented opportunity to confront the forces that undermine civilised society in real time and in a genuinely democratic way (for instance this petition at Change.org to oust Griffin from Twitter). For better or worse, the internet is the ultimate enabler; for the criminally-minded and law-abiding alike. Indeed, there’s a certain irony that the very media that have given free reign to the illicit sex industry and other organized crime networks – and make no mistake, these are organized networks dealing in big bucks, let alone the cost in human misery – are the same ones that might potentially bring about its undoing, by way of confronting the public’s long history of denial and complacency. Criminals like Savile will continue their tyrannies, of course, but there’s every chance that social media will provide an effective platform by means of which they might be exposed in their lifetime. Malicious false accusations and mistaken identifications are a possibility, of course, even likely – and there’s a weary inevitability that a few attention-seeking ne’er do wells will jump on the Savile bandwagon – but I’m not unduly concerned by this: typical estimates of the frequency of false criminal accusations hover around 2% of reported crimes, and given the exceptional social stigma associated with sex-crime, combined with ingrained reluctance to believe and thehistorically poor treatment of victims in court,there’s every reason to believe that false allegations of sex-crime are, if anything, less common than that. By contrast, 95% of sex crimes go unpunished; in many cases victims not only don’t report them to the authorities they never confide in anyone at all. As the saying goes, ‘you do the math’.
Savile‘s post-mortem trial by media might fly in the face of long-cherished notions of justice, but given the lack of justice that the majority of sex-abuse victims settle for it’s arguable that we’re in a better position than before. Marsh‘s assailant will face due process, and rightly so – though one hopes he will be treated sympathetically and with lenience – but the fact remains that in a more humane, less misogynistic world, victims of sex-crime would feel sufficient confidence in judical ‘due process’ to report their attacks at the time. It took eleven long years to bring Marsh to justice and many of Savile‘s victims have suffered much longer than that: if social media can effect some kind of paradigm shift, and fill a gap in the short term, then so be it.