Mass protest based on ‘accusation only’ is a dangerous slope to teeter around. It isn’t worth it.
Jonathan Williams and James Bull have received massive public support since tweeting that they were thrown out of the John Snow pub in Soho for a ‘peck on the lips,’ which they see as being motivated by the landlord’s homophobia. As a result, everyone from Ken Livingstone to the Guardian newspaper have joined in support of the 750-strong ‘kiss-in’ protest staged just outside the pub, and causing it to close.
Whenever gay couples are expected to tiptoe around other people’s sensitivities (to put it politely) I feel slightly queasy inside, and extremely annoyed, and if Bull and Williams’ ejection from the John Snow pub is found by the police (who are investigating) to indeed be for homophobic reasons, they have every right to take it further.
So I respect Peter Tatchell (who I usually admire and agree with) for stating that he will support any legal action James Bull and Jonathan Williams want to take, but first, we need to see some evidence that this was a homophobic incident, and Mr Tatchell is wrong to argue that it is down to the John Snow pub to prove its innocence, by demonstrating that it also removes heterosexual couples for kissing on the premises. The burden of proof, as always, needs to lie with the person making the accusation, not the accused.
The legal system has worked this way for centuries, and ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is supposed to be, at least in theory, a valued legal centerpiece of British justice. In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and live blogging from the Guardian on story updates (no, really), it becomes more imperative than ever that we don’t start marching on to someone’s property until we know for certain that they have done what they’re accused of, no matter how likely it is that they definitely have. And if we can’t be trusted to wait for official proof of guilt, determined by civilised legal channels, before we start seeing if people float or drown, perhaps it’s time that we go a step further, and stop publishing people’s names altogether until they are actually convicted of a crime.
Look at the treatment of people like poor Chris Jefferies, accused of murdering Jo Yates and having his picture, personal life, and, weirdly, his taste in poetry gossiped about by papers all around the country with sinister insinuations peppered all over the place, only to be dropped as a suspect almost immediately. And worse: look at the demonisation of people like Moazzam Begg and Binyam Mohammed in the media, with columnists like Richard Littlejohn defending the torture of the latter and implying that he is a terrorist, despite having never been convicted of a single crime.
I doubt very much that the landlord of the John Snow in Soho will be subjected to any such treatment but surely the principle remains the same. There is no evidence, there is only accusation and perception, so we must wait for impartial proof before we subject him to anything.
It shouldn’t, after all, be too difficult to prove homophobic discrimination? Surely James Bull and Jonathan Williams need only explain why they are so sure their ejection from the pub was an act of homophobia, and not merely the pub owner being a little old-fashioned and not wanting anyone to kiss on his premises? (Weird way to run a pub, perhaps, but it’s luckily not illegal to be weird.) Witness accounts of other straight couples being allowed to kiss would be enough. There must be a reason why they felt it to be a homophobic act? Can’t they just explain how they’ve seen straight couples being treated in the pub? But, curiously, no-one seems to have seen any straight couples being allowed to kiss either. Mr Williams merely states: “Show me a straight couple who have been removed.” But why should it fall to Thomas Paget (the landlord) to prove his innocence? Surely it is for his accusers to prove his guilt? If they can’t do that, I’m certainly not keen on the idea of a mass protest, based on what is merely one person’s interpretation of a situation. Nor am I keen on his name being in the paper.
Don’t misunderstand me: if Jonathan Williams and James Bull prove that the John Snow pub was homophobic in its policy (which may well be the case), then good luck to them in the courts, and a kiss-in protest is a brilliant, moving idea. But perhaps it would have been worth waiting until we know exactly what happened, and what Thomas Paget’s motive was, for certain? Otherwise we run the risk of becoming a liberal equivalent of those groups who got angry about England shirts being banned from buses and pubs, based on a story about someone being thrown off a bus for disruptive behaviour and a minor police suggestion about some recommended clothing during football games. Just as that story made the thin-skinned xenophobes looking for a slight against Britain look rather idiotic, similarly, a huge protest about an incident which turns out to be an innocent misunderstanding will do nothing to fight homophobia.