This week, verdicts were passed on two men accused of sexually abusing minors. The manner in which the verdicts were passed could not have been more different.
Firstly, a "guilty verdict" was issued against Woody Allen after his estranged adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, accused him in the pages of the New York Times of abusing her when she was seven years old. Who issued this verdict? Not a judge or a jury or anyone official, but a mob, a Twittermob to be precise.
In the kangaroo court of keyboard-bashing summary justice, Allen was declared guilty, and anyone who dared to stand up for him or simply to suggest that the truth of these sorts of things should only be decided in a court of law was smothered in guilt by association. They were "apologists" who had been "rape cultured" - that is, brainwashed by misogyny - into believing Allen and disbelieving Farrow.
It was classic mob justice: loudly declare that the man who has been accused of a crime is guilty, with no regard to anything so old-fashioned as evidence, and then turn your fiery, Salem-like fury against those who insist the accused man must surely, like all of us, be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. And so are both the norms of justice and open debate squished under the boot of the mob.
And secondly, William Roache, Coronation Street's Ken Barlow, was found not guilty of sexually abusing young women 50 years ago. The issuing of this verdict was a world away, a universe away, from what happened with Allen. The verdict was reached by a jury of 12 everyday people, eight women and four men, people just like you and me, who seriously, quietly and at length assessed the evidence against Roache and found it wanting. They were calm and rational and they decided that it was simply not possible to find Roache guilty "beyond a reasonable doubt" and so they did the civilised thing - declared him not guilty and free to go.
The actions of this jury were actually quite heroic. I'm not saying this because I hold a candle for Roache (I don't) or because I think all the current abuse cases being pursued against celebrities are nonsense (I don't), but rather because these 12 citizens must have had to work really, really hard to distance themselves from the hotheaded post-Savile public debate and create a space in their deliberations room where prejudice could not penetrate and hysteria could not take hold.
The job of a jury is to assess evidence in an honest, unpolluted fashion, and this jury appears to have executed that task brilliantly. They seem to have risen above the media and feministic fervour for punishment of evil celebrities of the 1970s, for finding child abuse everywhere, and to have exercised a properly independent, open-minded reading of the facts.
The vast differences between the Allen debate and the Roache case should remind us why trial by jury is such an important part of any society that thinks of itself as democratic. Jury trial saves us from being judged either by the mob or by possibly prejudiced members of the cut-off elite.
Where the mob is unthinking, united in a frenzied desire to rail against some devil or other, the jury is thoughtful, objective, analytical, and under pressure to be so through having the weight of an accused man or woman's destiny upon its shoulders. And where a single judge who sits all day in a court of law can tend to have a jaundiced view of humanity, through seeing case after case of individuals doing rotten things to other individuals, a jury is likely to have a fairer, less prejudiced view of mankind and therefore to look at accusations in a fresher, more sceptical way. The jury is an oasis of reason in a world that very often goes mad.
Various politicians have tried to undermine the right to trial by jury in recent years. We should never let them do this. For a jury trial is our greatest guard against both the fury of the mob and the prejudices of the elite. If you ever find yourself accused of a crime, your chances of justice will increase enormously if you are judged by 12 of your peers, by 12 normal people, rather than by devil-hunting gangs of bedroom-bound tweeters or by one white-haired judge who thinks human beings are generally nasty.Suggest a correction