Flat White

Justice in the internet age

3 March 2021

10:40 AM

3 March 2021

10:40 AM

After days of speculation, and mounting media and political pressure on the Prime Minister and his government to act on allegations that a current senior minister raped a young woman over thirty years ago, today that minister is going to out himself.

Presumably, he will express regret for the woman whom he allegedly assaulted taking her own life last year, but almost certainly he will strenuously deny any wrongdoing.

That the minister will out himself only after New South Wales police ruled out pursuing the matter further will be noted by his inquisitors in politics and the media, many of whom seem to have decided he is guilty simply because the allegations were made.

But while he will not be investigated, charged or prosecuted, politically and professionally he is potentially fatally damaged. The rape allegations will not be tested in a court of law, subject to the rules of evidence and the criminal burden of proof: beyond reasonable doubt. The complainant is dead. She has left her detailed statements behind, but there are presumably are no other witnesses to the alleged assault. What has been said, however, cannot be unsaid and will follow him for the rest of his career, and the rest of his life.

And if he holds a portfolio where personal integrity and fiduciary trust is especially central to his responsibilities and duties, his ministerial position ultimately may be untenable even if he does try to tough it out.

Whatever the truth of the allegations, a person was ultimately so traumatised and damaged by whatever happened that, ultimately, she took her own life. Given this, the minister must at least give his frank and honest account of what happened all those years ago.  He should also undertake to cooperate with any coronial inquest. He owes that to the woman’s family and intimates, if to no-one else – including political opponents and Walkley-pursuing journalists.

Beyond that, though, the minister, like anyone accused of a serious crime against another person, deserves the presumption of innocence.  That applies to the court of public opinion as well to a court of law.

Yet that has not happened, and is unlikely to change. In atmosphere already superheated by the Brittany Higgins alleged sexual assault, the fevered and angry speculation by those who don’t know the man’s identity, and the hint-dropping by those who do, effectively have convicted the man in that court of public opinion.

In a court of law, the verdict must be beyond reasonable doubt. In the court of public opinion, however, where social media are now judge and jury, just saying something is so is enough.

The unwise choice of the man not to identify himself until today has allowed this tragic matter, and the dead woman’s experience, to be sensationalised, politicised and even weaponised.  The minister should have done what Bill Shorten did seven years ago over similar allegations, and outed himself on his own terms.  He could have at least then had some say over his own story, including putting his side of it, mitigated the great distress the fervid reporting of recent days must be causing the woman’s family, and could have taken some of the intense heat out of the way politicians, journalists and commentators jumped on this matter in pursuit of their own motives and agendas.

But although he now looks like he is going public only in response to media and political pressure, that doesn’t mean the minister isn’t still entitled to a fair hearing.

Once he speaks today, he should be given that fair hearing, and every opportunity to both explain his side of the story and clear his name.

If not, it will prove that mob justice in the internet age is a very real and dangerous thing.

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Spectator Australia’s Morning Double Shot email. Sign up and make sure you don’t miss out here.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments