Beyond the neon runes

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A right to remain silent

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but we are slap-bang in the middle of a very tedious news-cycle. As someone with a vested interest in these matters, I can categorically state that these past few weeks have been the dullest in living memory. With nothing of note happening anywhere, our national papers have fallen back on the tried and trusted, on Brexit, on Irexit, on the Eighth, on the rental crisis, and the other selection of stories they’ve had in rotation for the past eighteen months.

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But amidst all those articles on Maurice McCabe, Mary Lou McDonald, and Donald himself, something new has emerged, something fascinating, a salacious, ongoing story that has captured the public imagination. A titillating tale which has had us rapt from the very beginning.

And how very titillating it’s been. I’ve barely been able to drag my eyes away from it, scouring the papers, websites for the latest evidence, tuning into both TV3’s and RTÉ’s evening news for updates, and engaging in online debate with complete strangers during my quieter moments.

The rape trial of the Ulster Rugby players is the kind of story that demands one’s attention.

All the elements are there: High-profile suspects. Graphic sex acts. Tawdry details. Virtue. Violence. Doubt. Denial. Consent. Innocence. Guilt. We may hate ourselves for doing so, but as soon as the newsreader announces that the following content contains details which some viewers may find upsetting we turn up the volume and order the room to be quiet. And when those details are revealed, when the questions posed to the complainant are recounted, we wince in faux-horror, momentarily sympathising with her plight before gawping at footage of the latest witness entering the court.

At the time of writing, there are still several weeks to go before all the evidence has been heard in this case, at least a month before the jury will be instructed to deliberate on their findings and return with a verdict. And for those of us following the story, this is perfectly fine; we may roll our eyes at the sight of another article on the devolution of Northern Ireland, grumble incessantly when we see our beleaguered Health Minister explain why the trolley crisis hasn’t yet been alleviated, but when it comes to the trial of Paddy Jackson, the word of four rugby players against one young student, we cannot get enough.

But it’s wrong. It feels wrong anyway.

Every day, as I pore over the reports of those present in that Belfast courthouse, I fight with my conscience, tackle a gnawing sense of guilt, a feeling that by consuming this news I am nothing but a filthy voyeur, the modern-day equivalent of an onlooker at the latest beheading or hanging. I know I’m not alone, that there are thousands of us, popcorn in hand, wishing cameras were allowed inside the court, that we could have a front-row seat instead of relying on second-hand information from those who were there.

However, just because we are many does not mean we are right.

There must be a better way of doing things, a better way of conducting these cases, a better way or reporting upon or documenting the latest hearings.

Because of Jackson’s relative fame, because he’s moderately well-known throughout the country, there is an argument that it is within the public’s interest to hear everything which occurs inside that Laganside Court, that being privy to the entire proceedings is the only way we can ascertain whether he’s guilty of not. Similarly, as he and his team-mates are the accused, they must waive their right to anonymity if the complainant so wishes.

My personal feeling is that, in a case as sensitive as this, no-one should be named, at least until a verdict has been reached. But regardless of the verdict, those accused of such crimes are forever linked to the act, whether they committed it or not. As soon as this trial is over, we will all switch our attention to something else, and those with little interest in Irish rugby will forget Paddy Jackson even existed. So much so that, in years to come, his name will only be synonymous with an alleged rape, the outcome of which many will struggle to properly recall.

Already, Jackson and his colleagues have been tried, sentenced and condemned by those on social media, their actions deemed abhorrent, incalculable by amateur detectives the country over. Set aside the fact that we still don’t know if they committed those acts, these people have officially denounced the Ulster players, dragged them over the coals and littered the online sphere with inflammatory comments deriding their supposed actions, misjudged and ill-advised material which can’t be taken back.

Should a not guilty verdict be passed down, should these sports’ stars walk free, will those social media users hastily track down their previous work and apologetically erase it from existence? I highly doubt it.

But my deepest concern lies with the complainant, the young woman at the centre of this case. Her name may not have been publicly revealed, her anonymity may be protected, but in the age of the Internet nothing is sacred, not even the very laws which govern this country.

Rumours as to her identity have been flying round social media since the trial began, Facebook accounts have been linked, pictures shared, aspersions cast, all because people can, because people are as fascinated by this case as you and me. And you can bet your life that I’ve clicked on every single of one of those links, viewed all those pictures, in an effort to gain greater insight into something which, quite frankly, shouldn’t even concern me.

There is a separate issue here, a question about the ordeal this woman has endured in the courts, a lengthy eight-day process which, among other things, has involved the use of her underwear as a piece of evidence, called into question her integrity, and seen her cross-examined by four defence lawyers, each with their own individual agendas.

Given these circumstances, and the fact that we have the lowest conviction rate for rape cases in the EU, it can hardly be a surprise that only one in ten rapes are reported in Ireland. Yet, in order to pursue that particular issue, one must assume that Jackson, Olding, Harrison and McIlroy are guilty, and that a rape was committed, something which I am certainly not in a position to do.

What I can do however is denounce the laws that allow us to have such intricate knowledge of these cases. I can bite the hand which feeds me and state that this trial is not fit for public consumption, that it should be played out behind closed doors.

That it should be afforded the same privacy as a case involving a child, wherein the only permitted attendants are those with a vested interest. Enacting these changes might consign us to an endless array of Brexit reports, but if it lessened the burden of those involved, it would be a price worth paying.

 

Bearded, gym-going men ‘outed’ as gay

Wouldn’t it be great if we all knew one another’s sexual persuasion without having to ask, if we never had to face rejection on the grounds of being the wrong gender, told that not only do they not fancy us, but they don’t fancy us or anyone like us. Life would just be so much easier. Well now, thanks to a Malaysian newspaper, we have been afforded at least some clarity on this most confusing of conundrums.

A checklist entitled ‘How to spot a gay’ was published in the Sinar Harian this week. Summarising the traits of homosexual people in handy bullet-point form, this infallible list informed readers that gay men are easily identifiable by their love of tight clothes, facial hair and branded clothes. That they enjoy going to the gym; not to exercise but to ogle other men. And that gay women hate all men and enjoy belittling them, love to spend time by themselves, and have a fondness for hugging and holding hands.

I don’t know about you but, according to this guide, I am a gay woman.

We may joke, but when you discover why this ludicrous article was published it becomes less amusing.

Carrying a sentence of up to 20 years imprisonment, homosexuality is illegal in Malaysia. Furthermore, hate crimes against LGBT people are on the rise in a country where conservative Islam continues to gain traction. So rather than a helpful means of informing gay people how to spot potential partners, this checklist is a method of outing people who, under Malaysian law, are viewed as potential criminals.

In a world where defenceless, innocent people are murdered simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, where children are kidnapped, molested and raped, and any number of atrocities are carried out daily, it would appear that at least one national newspaper has its priorities perfectly in order.