William Roache and Nigel Evans - a tale of two presumptions
The presumption of innocence is a fundamental right under the English system of Common law. It is by no means peculiar to England: the Romans ensured as early as the second century that Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (Proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies). It is consonant with our Judaeo-Christian understanding of justice that the prosecution is under the obligation to prove each allegation beyond reasonable doubt (or whatever burden of proof the crime demands). We are innocent until proven guilty.
Unless you happen to be an actor in Coronation Street.
William Roache - the longest serving soap actor in the world - has been swiftly excised from all Corrie plots on the strength of an allegation that he raped a 15-year-old girl in 1967. Quite why it has taken almost half a century for the girl to come forward is unknown. Certainly, rape is serious. And of a minor, it is appalling. But the allegation does not constitute guilt. Notwithstanding this ancient legal precept, Coronation Street producers decided to banish him from their programme. His distinguished career has been summarily trashed.
Just as it was for Michael Le Vell.
Not to mention poor Rolf Harris and Jim Davidson.
The judgments of their employers and the media have been swift in these cases. Nowadays, if you're in showbiz, you are presumed guilty of sexual assault, rape or paedophilia because Jimmy Savile has been found guilty - in the absence of any fair trial and with no robust test in any court of law.
We are left with the distinct impression that showbiz attracts sexual perverts. There is no need for an objective observer in the position of a juror: the Savile legacy and 'Operation Yewtree' seemingly lead us all to conclude - quite reasonably - that the accused committed the crime.
But Nigel Evans is not an actor - he is an MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. He is in politics, not showbiz, though the lines of demarcation are increasingly blurred: it is certainly no longer degrees of beauty or ugliness that determine which stage one struts.
Nigel Evans is accused of rape and sexual assault against two young men now said to be in their early 20s. Since the rape allegation reportedly dates back to 2009, it is not clear if we are talking about the rape of a young teenager.
Whatever the veracity or falsehood of this story, Nigel Evans has a right to the presumption of innocence. Mr Evans strongly denies the charges.
But so, of course, do William Roache, Rolf Harris and Jim Davidson.
Yet Jimmy Savile has made us all triers of facts: we have all become media jurors and armchair judges. If we cannot begin with the presumption that Coronation Street is unable to assert innocence of its actors, why should the House of Commons not similarly presume guilt? If the allegation of rape or sexual assault is deemed sufficient to effect arrest, and if that arrest is sufficient to trash the reputations and effectively end the careers of showbiz personalities, how much more should it for those who sit in the state legislature as representatives of the people? Should Mr Evans not be deprived of the Speaker's Chair while the investigation is ongoing? Should he not have the Conservative Party whip suspended while he fights to clear his name? Or is our political discourse of greater levity even than the soap opera of light entertainment?
Or is it that allegations of heterosexual rape meet with a lower burden of proof than allegations of male rape? Is it that we are permitted to draw negative inferences from the fact that heterosexuals are accused of crimes committed 40 or 50 years ago against young girls, but we may not from the fact that middle-aged homosexuals are accused of crimes five years ago against teenage boys? Has the golden thread of the English criminal law been so frayed by homophobia-phobia?