Monday, 20 July 2009

Bad private law, weak public jokes

It’s a basic principle of our legal system that no-one should be a judge in his or her own cause. In other words, if you’re directly affected by a case, you can’t judge it.

Attitudes in much of the British press sometimes make it hard to believe that everyone agrees. Of course, I’m not so naïve as to have anything but the lowest expectations of our press. Of just under 11 million papers sold in Britain each day, over 10 million are partisan in outlook, with 9 million right wing of which a large minority is increasingly virulent and extreme in tone. Just half a million papers sold by The Guardian and The Independent show any commitment to recognisable standards of journalistic independence and accuracy of reporting.

The baying majority reacts to any particularly unpleasant crime with an outcry in favour of the law taking the victim’s views into account (sometimes that means the victim’s family, though wouldn’t it be fascinating if they really consulted the victim in murder cases?).

In reality, basing yourself on the victim’s views is exactly what you shouldn’t do: if I or any member of my family were the victim of a crime, I’m sure I’d want to do something horrible to the perpetrator. When my bike saddle was stolen, I thought it would be wonderful to sit the thief on what was left and push down on his shoulders. For a more proportionate and moderate response, it’s probably best not to ask the victim. You ask someone capable of taking a balanced, dispassionate view. In fact, you ask a professional judge.

Similarly, for the investigation of the crime you turn to people who are seeking a prosecution, not people who are looking for revenge. You use a professional police force that you hope is accountable to society generally. There are times when they don’t seem that accountable, for instance when the Metropolitan Police in London shoot dead an innocent Brazilian because he looks like a terrorist, or cause the death of someone who merely had the misfortune of being near the anti-G20 protests. These are inexcusable breaches but they don’t make the principle any less important.

So it’s interesting that the Italian government legalised vigilante groups last week. The government argues that they are regulating what those groups can do, for instance stopping them carrying arms. That’s fine but it ignores the issue of principle that they’re authorising private individuals to enforce law. Private law – as that brilliant British novelist Terry Pratchett points out – is what the Latin root of the word 'Privilege' means. Private law serves the privileged.

The Italian legislation is part of a package that launches an assault on the already limited rights of the most vulnerable members of society, specifically immigrants. It becomes a criminal offence to be an illegal immigrant in Italy, or to offer an illegal immigrant accommodation. The new law has been denounced not just by the usual organisations such as Amnesty International but even by the Catholic Church.

With his under-age girlfriends and his paid-for female party escorts, Berlusconi just seems a clown. But look under the surface and the show’s not that amusing, unless you like the spectacle of privilege feeding on the weak.

This isn’t just the weird behaviour of southern Europeans. I've found it instructive to listen to British Conservative supporters recently. They’re becoming more strident by the day, as their victory in the next election becomes more certain. They proclaim the superiority of the private sector over the public, of wealthy individuals over the poor, of privilege over disadvantage. They sound like Berlusconi and his mates.

They're trotting out the mantras of the past whose failure was most glaringly revealed by the collapse of the financial system last year. They're trying to make them the mantras of the future. It feels to me as though we're going to find ourselves before long dealing with a bunch of jokers as amusing as those we have in Italy.

The kind that doesn't generate a lot of laughs.


Awoogamuffin said...

Hmm... though I do love the guardian, the other day I was having a rather fun conversation with a deeply religious republican. At one point he said something along the lines of

"The problem was that I see all this really biased, liberal media that doesn't show the alternative view, you know? That's why I was really happy when Fox news came along to give us a balanced, objective view of things".

My point being that maybe the reason the guardian seems objective to us is because we agree with it.

David Beeson said...

I can't see your point, but then I've always believed that the world is divided into those who agree with me and the blind prejudiced fools.