Belfast Telegraph

The social media warriors were not there... so who are they to pass judgment?

By Barbara McCarthy

Just like everyone else on social media, I wasn't in Paddy Jackson's house in Belfast on the night of June 28, 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 bad things 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 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% 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 discourages them from coming forward. Women are very often not mentally up to the rigours of a trial.

Some are scared, many ashamed to come forward.

The very public nature of information read out in trials means judgment ensues.

But Northern Ireland is 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 be cross-examined. What's the alternative - using medieval tactics? Maybe unanimous castration instead of a trial?

"I'm so f***ing angry", "Please don't support this blatant disregard for women", "I'm in tears", "I can't even..." and so it goes on.

Online campaigns have ensued - all from the comfort of their armchairs 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: 'Innocent until proven guilty.'

Rape trials are ambiguous.

It's one person's word against another's.

Then you add booze plus time over distance.

So, frustratingly, we will never know what went on exactly.

But what if, like the jury has found, the men are not guilty - does that not stand for anything?

Would you like to be falsely accused of rape on social media?

It's a crying shame the jury only contained three women.

We represent 50% 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 afraid 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.

There are no winners here.

As it occurred in Belfast, the men weren't anonymous, as they would've been in the Republic.

The woman had her knickers handed round the courtroom.

The way rape trials are conducted needs to change.

#Metoo started a discussion. An important one.

Perverts being publicly outed is great.

Sexual harassers getting called out. Fabulous.

Women being empowered to speak up. Even better, villains being ostracised and losing their wives, kids and jobs, and sometimes even getting punished by law.

But it has stretched the boundaries of rape.

Rape, sexual harassment, sexual assault, saying something out of line - 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 p***ed, she was high, what was she doing with that guy anyway?"

This hasn't changed.

This attitude towards women being raped is as present now as it ever was.

While they were cleared of rape, the four men still spoke terribly about their accuser in messages the next day, such as "there was a bit of spit roasting going on last night fellas", "It was like a merry-go-round at the carnival", "What the f*** was going on. Last night was hilarious".

Well, not really. This kind of language doesn't display respect or integrity.

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?

Barbara McCarthy is a freelance journalist based in Dublin

Belfast Telegraph


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