Why the John Snow in Soho ‘kiss-in’ protest makes me nervous

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.

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7 Comments

  1. Utter bollocks.

    If everyone waited around for days and days before taking action against this kind of thing, then nothing would ever change. Right on for those who organised the kiss-in tonight, and the one next week.

    The onus lies on the brewery and pub to take proper action early on if they’re to stop the problems and nip it in the bud. A response like “We’re investigating, and have suspended the manager in question” would likely have satisfied the masses and stopped the protest from proliferating to the extent that it did.

    However, they buried their heads in the sand, responded “no comment” to anyone who asked, and like anyone with their heads in the sand, is liable to be fucked up the arse.

  2. They might not have suspended the manager though, since he might not have done anything wrong. Nothing homophobic has been proved. Who knows why they didn’t comment? Lawyers, or someone else, might even have told them not to comment? Perhaps they’re just not very media savvy and find the whole thing terrifying? Not everyone likes seeing their name in the papers. Perhaps they don’t feel like they have a case to answer.

    If the guys in question could show that straight couples were being treated differently, then I agree the pub would be the ones with the case to answer. But they haven’t shown this. It is just their perception that it was a homophobic incident.

    If there were straight couples in there kissing, why haven’t we heard about it by now? Surely it’s the first thing they’d mention when telling everyone about what happened? Other gay couples have even piped up saying they’ve been in there themselves and never had a problem. Without evidence, it’s just one word against another. That isn’t justification enough to send 750 protesters to someone’s property and splash their name all over the paper. It’s justification for the police to investigate, and for them to go through proper legal processes (which they are doing). That’s all.

    The bottom line is, if someone made an accusation about you, without any evidence, just based on their perception of an incident, would you really be happy for a 750 person protest to take place on your property and your name to be in the paper, unless you were able to prove a negative, i.e. prove your innocence?

    And asking for evidence before taking this kind of action is hardly something that slows the process of change, it’s surely a mark of being civilised and liberal.

    If it turns out to be a homophobic incident I will be there at the protest myself.

  3. Hmm… I agree that those accused of serious crime should only be named when charged and only the name should be in the media with all other information deemed a contempt of court (how else can the jury consider only the evidence presented to it ie that which complies with rules of admissibility?)

    But I do not agree that any protest at the pub should be deferred until the legal machinations are concluded. The facts are that two gay men were kissing and were then ejected. Had there been more to it than that, it is extremely likely that the internet would have been alive with accusations that they are agents provocateurs with an agenda – but the internet isn’t. I would be happy to protest against a pub throwing them out for kissing – the discrimination aspect, even the homophobic aspect doesn’t really matter.

    You surely wouldn’t argue that if a manager repeatedly threw out black men for kissing white women that it was not racist because he/she would occasionally throw out a white man and a white woman kissing?

    And, since kissing in pubs is a very frequent occurrence, why not have signs forbidding it if you don’t like it? They do at other places.

  4. I wouldn’t argue that if black people were kissing and thrown out, but white people were kissing and not thrown out, it wasn’t racist. But no-one can find any example of a straight couple being allowed to kiss. If a black man was thrown from a pub and he claimed it was racist, and just said “well prove it wasn’t,” I wouldn’t automatically support 750 people marching to the pub for a protest, no.

    We don’t even really know if it was just a kiss or if they were being drunk and rude too (apparently one was so drunk they threw up outside to be fair). I’ve known straight people to be (very occasionally) removed from pubs for kissing. I’ve also known people be removed from pubs for quite random things that seem like nothing, but the pub doesn’t like it and it’s their pub. It happens. Fair point about the signs I suppose. Though as I understand it these gents were asked to stop whatever they were doing quite a few times before actually being asked to leave? And given the pub’s location (and the fact that quite a few gay people have claimed to have been in there showing affection with no problem in the past) it would be AMAZING if they were genuinely homophobic and this had never been an issue until now? I mean surely if nothing else a homophobe would choose a different spot for their pub?!

    It’s not about saying I don’t believe them though. It’s about questioning whether I trust the perception of two drunk lads enough to support a massive protest on that scale. That’s a slightly different question. I support them raising a legal challenge to find out what happened, as I say. But not something as scary as a 750 person protest!

  5. In the interests of fairness etc, he’s one of the lads in question explaining his story to the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/15/gay-kissing-pub-eject-london?

    Interesting article but note that in it, he merely says he doesn’t believe it would have happened to a heterosexual couple. That is literally the only ‘evidence’ he offers to support his accusation of homophobia. Is that really unarguable, undeniable proof of anything? Would that stand up in court for example?

  6. I’m surprised that you keep coming back to a legal (presumably criminal) standard of proof in order to trigger a protest. That might be required for a 24/7 permanent protest, but not for a one-off demonstration of feeling against the throwing out.

    The pub mangers did something that might well be homophobic – the protestors accuse them of homophobia. That’s what happens when people protest isn’t it?

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