Injustice is a keyword for socialists, along with inequality, precisely because its antonym, justice, provides a beacon for us to aim for. The liberal-capitalist social system has evolved so that it is proud of its apparent commitment to concepts such as democracy, equality, justice and the rule of law. All are equal before the law we are told. And this notion filters through to our everyday lives.
Like most people in the UK I had grown up with the idea that, if you told the truth, you had nothing to worry about. That if you were wrongly accused of something you would get a fair trial and that if you had done nothing wrong then the burden of proof would be on your side. Justice, I was convinced, was both blind and pervasive.
I was wrong. And as each day passes I am found to be even more wrong. Justice is no more, it seems, than an arm of class rule designed to maintain the positions of power and privilege of the ruling class.
Justice, it turns out, has little to do with fairness or equality and everything to do with satisfying the demands of ‘the mob’ for vengeance. We may be less brutal than the Middle Ages, but witch hunts are still very much alive and kicking.
Each year in the UK hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. Many of those will have been vilified by the press and by those observing on social media.
Moreover, every year thousands of people find themselves on the wrong side of disciplinary procedures which have no relationship at all to justice. Too many workplace disciplinary procedures are used, as blunt instruments, to attack people who, frankly, have done little wrong. Often the victims are trade unionists, but equally as often the victims are simply people who do not fit in for one reason or another.
Courts of Appeal offer some amends to those wrongly convicted, but in order to even get your case before the Court of Appeal you have to first admit to committing a crime you intend to show you were innocent of. Inside our prisons are men and women who have been convicted of serious crimes who are kept in prison because they refuse to be sorry for a crime they never committed in the first place.
It is no secret that our prisons are full of innocent people. Andrew Malkinson is just the latest in a long line of people convicted because the police, contrary to popular mythology, do not pursue the truth using their forensic skills of logic (perhaps Conan Doyle was pointing to something when he did not make Sherlock Holmes a member of the police).
Most arrests are obvious and are accompanied by either a confession or compelling evidence. It is when they have to piece together more complex cases that things come unstuck. And, as we have seen, in numerous cases they find a suitable suspect and then bend the available evidence to make it fit. These victims of state kidnapping, for that is what it amounts to, tend to be working class, and very often have learning difficulties — and the conviction is very often accompanied by a press that convicts before trial. It is a travesty of justice.
We tend to know the names of the big cases, none bigger than Julian Assange, but also the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, etc. But each year thousands of innocent people are released following new evidence (often based on forensics) that proves they could not have committed the crime they are convicted of. The Post Office workers convicted of theft are one of the most egregious examples of people convicted because their word was not believed against faulty software.
And, in a nutshell, that is the problem. Our childhood belief that honesty is the right policy does not hold in all circumstances. We watch the rich avoid justice for things that would get us banged up for years because the establishment must be protected, and their victims tend to be young and working class. Those who fawned over Jeffrey Epstein may not have done anything technically illegal, but certainly turned a blind eye to wrong-doing of other well connected individuals. And we should not forget that the Metropolitan Police chose not to charge Epstein in 2001 to protect the Duke of York, against whom allegations were being made. We have no such protection should we even be suspected of wrong-doing, let alone be proved to have actually committed an offence.
It is not just so-called ‘serious’ offences – murder, rape, sexual assault, violence – but virtually all aspects of our lives have been permeated by the legal system. In some respects we could argue that this could be ‘fixed’ with a few reforms. If the police were less racist, less sexist, less prone to be influenced by the prejudices of their communities, but where are we to find these paragons of virtue? It is a view that leads to the view that working class communities should be policed by professional (for which read middle class) police.
And, let’s face it, it’s not just in crime is it? Working class schools are often less tolerant because some teachers believe that kids from so-called ‘sink estates’ need the discipline that is lacking at home. As if working class parents have no moral values unless a middle class professional imposes it upon them. And, it is not just about how working class people get treated, but rather the low expectations for some people based on their class of origin.
I grew up on a working class estate and nobody in authority ever told me that university was a realistic ambition. I was told that the best I could hope for was as a skilled manual worker. I had no run-ins with the law, but friends of mine found themselves in court for acts of youthful stupidity that would have been seen as youthful japes if they had been middle class.
The destruction of justice has been accompanied by trial by media. The media has always loved building people up so that they can knock them down again. This is not a recent phenomenon and goes back to, at least, Oscar Wilde. It was Wilde who summed up the celebrity dilemma when he wrote: “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” Individuals who court the media cannot complain too much when the same media turns on them. The problem is that investigative journalism of the type done by Paul Foot and John Pilger has been largely replaced by a moralistic media, both dragging public debate into the gutter and setting themselves up as moral arbiters of right and wrong— mostly, with a concern to sell newspapers rather than serve justice. And social media has simply exacerbated this trend.
We were always spectators in the legal system, as upper middle class barristers, assisted by middle class solicitors, made their cases before upper class judges. Now we can all have an opinion. The legal profession genuinely believes that their education and sense of justice means that everybody gets a fair trial. The thousands in prison for crimes they did not commit might disagree; but at least their cases were heard by a jury which had the available evidence presented to them.
Trial by social media is usually conducted in a frenzy of irrelevant comments about the character of the person accused, together with partial accounts of what actually happened, shared by people who were not there and have no connection to the case. People are to be believed or not depending on their popularity. That is not a trial – that is a beauty contest.
Should we refrain from speaking on social media on high profile cases? In general I would suggest that the era, if it existed at all, when social media was conducted according to rational debate, has long since passed. It is now a mud-slinging contest where people are condemned on the most dubious of evidence. From my time on jury service in the nineties, it was clear to me that most ordinary people still had a sense of justice and worked hard to express it when called upon to do so. But, social media is rapidly undermining this.
It is not just the raging cesspit of social media, the idea of innocent until proven guilty is being undermined in everyday settings that affect all of us. It is not confined to celebrities who are often victims of their own narcissistic personalities. In disciplinary cases, those hearing the case are rarely impartial observers — they are very often the managers of the managers who brought the case in the first place. For most workers their defence is reliant upon a trade union rep who mostly have no specific legal training to mount their defence. I was once told by a trade union rep to stop arguing in a meeting where I was being told that I would have to pay tax on legitimate expenses because it was “just making matters worse”. I did say to them that if they were doing their job I would not have to do it for them. In the event, I had to pay back a huge amount of tax, which, after a 3-year battle, HMRC conceded should never have been taken. But the truth was that the rep was simply out of their depth.
Employment Appeal Tribunals (EATs) often overturn cases in favour of workers on grounds of which you would expect most employers to be aware. According to Personnel Today, all of these are common reasons for disciplinary decisions to be challenged: not warning the employee of the possible consequences of the disciplinary action; not setting out the nature of the accusations clearly to the employee; not furnishing the employee with relevant evidence against them; not operating a system of warnings where appropriate; not allowing the employee to be accompanied at a disciplinary hearing; relying on evidence from one particular source with no corroborative evidence; the absence of an adequate appeal stage; failure to keep clear records of the whole disciplinary process; delays in dealing with disciplinary issues; having the same person deal with the whole disciplinary process. What these have in common is a general belief that due process is an option rather than a right. In the media and on social media, due process is rarely an option and never a right.
This is not a question of whether the media sometimes get it right. Or whether those vilified on social media sometimes deserve it. It goes beyond that. If you are accused of a misdemeanour, it is your right to be treated as innocent unless those bringing the accusation can prove otherwise. That right, even in the UK where our rights are gradually being eroded, is enshrined in law as part of the Human Rights Act 1998.
If you are accused, it is your right to be told the charges against you and to be able to test the evidence in a fair hearing. Neither the mass media nor social media are interested in justice, what they are interested in is blame and retribution. If you get caught in their headlights, forget justice, it is already off the agenda. And that is something that should worry all of us.
Justice is, it is sometimes held, the mark of a civilised society. In that regard we are far from being civilised. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Ignoring injustice — more so, encouraging it for our own ends — destroys any claims our society might have to being called democratic. If we accept that justice is simply a game of pragmatic decision making at the employment level, if we engage in unsupported allegations on social media because we don’t like the person against whom they are being made, if we don’t uphold basic rights to be innocent until proven guilty and entitled to a fair trial, then we are as responsible for the miscarriages of justice as the legal system that perpetrates them.
This is not a socialist principle per se; it is a principle of fairness, justice and equality, which are as relevant in a capitalist society as they will be in the future socialist society. If we do not uphold them now, then exactly what kind of society are we going to be creating in the future?
Socialist of many years. Former Labour member. Currently presenter of The Socialist Hour.