Politicians in thrall to mentality of the mob

Published by The Independent (12th January, 2015)

Just over four years ago in the United States there was a firestorm of protest over the suggestion a prominent quarterback named Michael Vick might return to top-flight American football after serving a prison sentence for dog-fighting. Critics fumed that he could not return to such prominence after conviction for involvement in barbaric activities that include beating, drowning and electrocution of dogs. Animal welfare campaigners argued young fans should not have a dog-torturer for a role model.

There are few more passionate groups than animal lovers. Yet when the Philadelphia Eagles took a risky decision to sign the star quarterback following his release, the owner received a phone call of congratulations from the White House. ‘So many people who serve time never get a fair second chance,’ said Barack Obama, praising the club for making a bold public stand in support of rehabilitation.

The president was right. Studies show prisoners suffer lasting damage to their lives, often ending up among lowest earners regardless of qualifications that could help them rebuild a more productive life after wrongdoing. This is one more factor in Britain’s high rates of recidivism, especially with hostility from most employers. Almost all convicts leave jail with the desire to change their ways and most see work as the key, yet half re-offend within a year of release – twice the rate of Norway, which helps them find a job and home.

Yet what a contrast the Vick case presents with the outcry over Welsh footballer Ched Evans, who has now been stopped from signing for at least three clubs. Rape is a far more serious offence, of course, and he has shown no real remorse. Yet the same essential principle remains at stake – the right to rehabilitation after conviction and punishment. Sadly our own politicians, from mainstream party leaders down to local council chiefs, have done the precise opposite to Obama by joining a mob mentality that demands no place on the public stage for this infamous felon.

The passion this case has aroused is understandable. The footballer was convicted of an offence with distressingly low conviction rates, while his sentence for a predatory assault on a drunken woman seemed surprisingly short. Campaigners point out victims can suffer for the rest of their lives, made worse in this case by the appalling way a raped woman has been subsequently hounded and forced to move homes. And yes, the idea of this unapologetic man strutting around in front of thousands of adoring fans sticks in the throat.

But this is precisely why the political failure to support his return to football is so striking. In a decent society all criminals should be given the chance to become better citizens after completing court-imposed punishments – and the simplest way to do this is when they can resume careers and restore stability to their lives. The crime debate, like others, is defined by its controversial cases. Yet instead of standing firm in defence of a cherished cause, politicians united in a depressing display of illiberalism by meekly caving in to the crowd.

MPs complain about the message sent by football clubs offering Evans the chance to play again, ignoring the message sent by their own public rejection of rehabilitation. So much for those silky speeches on redemption. One result of this pandering to populism has been an escalation of hostility shown to those daring to propose Evans might return to professional football. The daughter of one Oldham Athletic director was reportedly threatened with rape, yet there seems little support shown for an abused woman on the wrong side of this furore.

Opponents protest Evans cannot return to the game when he has shown no contrition. Certainly this contrasts with other high-profile cases involving jailed sports stars such as Vick and footballer Lee Hughes, jailed for causing death by dangerous driving. It also fails to sate the demand for celebrity confessions. Yet even rapists and murderers have the right to fight to overturn convictions, however unfair and unpalatable this can seem to others. This is another central foundation stone of the criminal justice system – a recognition mistakes can be made, as seen all too often in the courts.

I do not seek to absolve an unsympathetic character convicted of a sordid crime. But much opposition seems to stem from the idea he would walk back into a job offering fame and fortune; it is hard not to wonder if some might be motivated by a touch of envy rather than pure morality. Evans is not a paedophile seeking a school post, while there is so much cant talked about role models. As one audience member on BBC Question Time asked last week, if a rapist cannot be a sportsman is it then acceptable for one to work in Sainsbury’s? Needless to say, the pontificating politicians on the panel ducked the difficult question of where they drew the line.

This saga of the rapist footballer has been an unedifying spectacle from the start. But he was caught, convicted and locked up; he should not be punished again and again for the same offence. The sport itself has demonstrated its usual depressing mix of avarice and inadequate leadership. Yet how pathetic that politicians have lined up to kick this convict down repeatedly rather than stand up for a principle they all claim to espouse. In doing so, they have damaged the concept of criminal justice and demeaned Westminster.

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