A senior manager wants to speak to me, urgently. A student (I am not told who) has made an allegation of a sexual nature against me (I am not told what). After initial surprise, I realise that my life will be shaken abruptly: everything I am doing at work, and in my happy family home, will be turned upside down. The manager informs me that I am suspended, pending investigation. She assures me that there is no supposition of guilt, but says I mustn’t log on to my university account or contact anyone in faculty. Later, a trusted colleague tells me of messages circulating on the students’ Facebook forum, casting aspersions. The university declares that it takes allegations of sexual misconduct ‘extremely seriously’. And then I wake from the nightmare . . . all is well.
I’m not one of the growing number of alleged culprits of sexual misdemeanour, but I could be – as could any man in any workplace. Because, following the Harvey Weinstein scandal, the modern equivalent of witchcraft is lurking in every corner. In the current hysteria of denunciation and extra-judicial punishment, a man who is accused will readily feel the Kafkaesque absurdity of being guilty until proven innocent. The militant feminists have won: they have subverted justice to impose a doctrine of pathologised masculinity, and now they are using this to destroy our institutional stability.
So, has the Inquisition claimed its first victim? Four days after being sacked from his position and then suspended from the Welsh Labour Party over complaints of sexual harassment, Welsh Assembly minister Carl Sargeant was found dead, having apparently taken his own life. It is reported that he was not told what the allegations were. In a statement yesterday, his family said he had not been afforded ‘common courtesy, decency or natural justice’ and that he was left in the dark over claims of ‘unwanted attention, inappropriate touching or groping’ levelled at him; he had been ‘unable to properly defend himself’. This was despite requests and warnings regarding his mental welfare, they added.
The MeToo campaigners have gone quiet for now. It is to be hoped that these normally vociferous misandrists will not draw a harsher conclusion than the ducking of the alleged witch, who was deemed innocent only if she drowned.
Sir Alastair Graham, former chairman of the Committee of Standards in Public Life, has urged a legal review of this tragedy, pointing out Sargeant was given no opportunity to defend himself before suspension, and that due process was not followed.
To be disciplined without charge could indeed be straight out of Kafka’s The Trial.
On the same day as Sargeant’s death, there was newspaper coverage of a woman taking out a private prosecution for rape. Emily Hunt lambasted the Crown Prosecution Service, arguing that it has ‘an abysmal record when it comes to rape’. She might be right, to some extent, but the fact is also that many innocent men have been on the receiving end of a government policy designed to reap more convictions. The push for more convictions is leading to more prosecutions, as can been from the substantial rise in the number of rape arrests and trials.
And this inevitably means more innocent men are pursued (as we often see with ridiculous cases brought before a jury). Ms Hunt stated that ‘research shows the overwhelming majority of women who say they have been raped are telling the truth’. How on earth can this be known? An ‘overwhelming majority’ is not supported by the outcome of rape trials, although feminists will argue that cleared men were given the benefit of doubt. If it includes allegations that the CPS rejects for prosecution, that is a reckless presumption. Dozens of women per year are charged with perverting the course of justice by falsely claiming to have been raped. But as with rape allegations, the CPS will proceed only with a case that has a likelihood of conviction. To be honest, we don’t know how many rapes occur, or how many claims are false. The reality of sex crime is often murky: two parties acting in private, with two sides of a story. Truth is not necessarily found by starting from the premise that the woman is a victim.
Undoubtedly a large number of women have been abused and their perpetrators are never brought to justice. But there is a troubling tendency for trial by WhatsApp and Twitter, with instant judgment by online hordes who know little about the man in the line of fire. It is to be hoped that Carl Sargeant’s death, whatever the details to emerge in coming days, proves a watershed moment in this corrosive guilty-until-proved-innocent ‘witch-hunt’ culture.
Though we fret so much about mental health these days, little concern is shown for the mental distress (to the point of suicide) of those who suffer the meting out of a mob justice that should shame civilised society. I am no legal expert, but with three decades of experience in mental health, I would recommend the following actions:
1. When someone is accused of sexual harassment in the workplace, the employer has a duty of care. A mental health crisis is not an unlikely event as the suspended worker is denied contact and removed from his productive role, while he may become a social pariah and his domestic relationships may fray. Provision of occupational health services is not part of the disciplinary process.
2. Automatic suspension for allegations should cease. It implies guilt, and such action is often more for the defence of the employer than a proportionate response.
3. Anonymity for anyone accused of sex crime. The government must not let feminist politicians maintain this fundamental imbalance. There may be justifiable exceptions, but exposing the accused in a concerted effort to harvest further allegations is ethically dubious – each case should be decided on merit.
4. CPS head Alison Saunders, if she is serious about pursuing crime on social media, should warn that spreading false or unsubstantiated allegations will lead to prosecution. Confronting unjustified and harmful naming and shaming should not be left to private libel action.
Lessons must be learned by the media too. When a Polish man was killed in a fight in Hertfordshire, this was escalated by the BBC and Guardian to a maelstrom of Brexit racism, but a more obvious case of a fatality caused by social frenzy has been sidelined. Some commentators need to ask themselves whether their sensationalising of damaging (but often spurious) allegations contributed to a father killing himself. And men need to stand up and be counted. Otherwise, their behaviour will be judged and governed by the Kate Maltby Code of Conduct.