Trial by Twitter

    29 November 2017

    Whether you spoke up, were spoken against or were merely an observer, there has been no ignoring the seismic change in public life that has accompanied the Harvey Weinstein revelations. Have women been treated in a way that they are entitled to consider completely unacceptable? Yes. How can I be so sure? I’m one of the men responsible.

    Last month, I was fired from my job as GQ’s political correspondent after several women accused me on Twitter of making them feel uncomfortable. I apologised publicly to them and I stick by that apology. One woman in particular spoke of her discomfort at my attempt to kiss her after we had had a few drinks together outside a bar some years ago. My recollection isn’t quite the same, but I appreciate it has upset her. Other women have come forward to express similar feelings. Some of the things I’ve read about myself have been false, but you’ll find no excuses here and neither do I seek to undermine the seriousness of these claims.

    Being fired without being given the chance to defend myself was frustrating, but it’s small beer to what else has been going on in the political and entertainment worlds, where concerns about due process seem to have evaporated in the post-Weinstein panic. The Conservatives’ Charlie Elphicke, to give one small example, was suspended without consultation (at the time of writing no reason has been made public).

    I’ve had my fair share of knocks and traumas, but it was a disorientating shift to go from a private individual who writes and broadcasts about current affairs to someone whose private life is being dissected by Ann Coulter on Fox News, and the internet at large. It isn’t in my nature to sit out a debate, but when the subject is oneself, sometimes it’s better to receive than to broadcast. I have watched the twists and turns of the whole sorry chapter closely, from Lena Dunham’s comeuppance for defending her friend to the incredible bravery of Bex Bailey. It has been a novel, sometimes exasperating experience to stay silent, but a period of quiet contemplation is no bad thing. I can recommend long walks, critical friends, and — besides perhaps the occasional sip of Lagavulin — clean living for anyone who finds themselves similarly presented with the opportunity to reassess the direction of their life.

    On social media, volunteer jurors sit in session on these cases with scant opportunity to review any facts. Dangerously, the process in the court of public opinion is by no means forensic. Some are compelled to deny allegations without necessarily having sight of them. However much individuals may not wish to argue the details of their private lives, too many seem to judge silence as admission. I say none of this to detract from the appalling stories of abuse that have come out. It is absolutely right that the dam has broken, but it is possible to celebrate valuable ends while expressing concern over sometimes questionable means.

    Of course the impetus behind the #MeToo social media campaign is entirely justified. Many men — in particular — must change. Not just for our sisters, our mothers and our female friends, but for ourselves, too. As Hannah Arendt wrote: ‘As citizens, we must prevent wrongdoing because the world in which we all live, wrong-doer, wrong sufferer and spectator, is at stake.’ There is a risk that should not be ignored if this necessary and important campaign is to succeed, and that risk is that it will be undermined by a lack of procedural fairness. The court of public opinion does not provide for equal representation. There is no presumption of innocence, and social media can too often reward a herd mentality. As Jon Ronson wrote in his great chronicle of social media behaviour So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed: ‘It felt like the people on Twitter had been invited to be characters in a courtroom drama and had been allowed to choose their roles, and had all gone for the part of the hanging judge.’

    Those who try to stand against the judgments of the crowd are often castigated. On the internet, immediate condemnation works well, but caution is not so highly rewarded. I once played Governor Danforth in a production of The Crucible, and I still recall the exhilarating self-righteousness of the character’s final words. Words that exhibit a familiar binary approach that stifles basic human compassion: ‘Hang them high over the town! Who weeps for these, weeps for corruption!’

    When it comes to any serious matter, the dangers of social media can cut both ways. The reaction towards those who have stood up to share their experiences has been appalling. I hope that in an enlightened future we will look back harshly on what social media was in 2017. It does not reflect wider society, and is a community that has largely misjudged the outcomes of more or less every major political event in recent times. Social media rewards fake viral news and provides platforms to those heavily engaged in disinformation. Neo-Nazis are verified by Twitter, women in particular receive torrents of abuse, and there is scant opportunity to sift the truth from the misinformation. It has almost reached the point at which sharing something on social media immediately devalues it.

    It’s time to accept that ‘trial by social media’ is not a trial at all. We are certainly not witnessing a witch hunt, but rather a painful truth-and-reconciliation process between the sexes. Society is learning messy truths at costs that are not finely measured, and where the new rules aren’t always entirely clear. There can be no doubt that we will all be better off if men are finally held to account for exploiting positions of power, but in the understandable rush for outcomes, we should not lose sight of process.

    Of course we have not seen neatly balanced justice, and maybe that’s too much to expect when we need to bring about rapid social change. Nevertheless, we must hope to be able to unify around a shared future. Arendt, again: ‘Forgiveness is the key to action and freedom.’ It is the work of all of us to find and acknowledge the truths that lie at the heart of the #MeToo campaign. I am working to learn my own lessons. I hope that, having faced those truths, we can all start to bring about some kind of reconciliation.