News now stalking me, need restraining order: The great (?) Christ’s College controversy (?) of 2016

As this has now been reported in the Daily Mail, I suppose this is both officially “news” and a “controversy”.  Here’s your link, lest you suspect me of making all this stuff up.

In summary  – several Jewish students walked into a bar, in the graduate union building of my alma mater, Cambridge University. Realising that they were being set up for the punchline of a bad joke, and also that the place had been rented out for the evening to the sporting societies of Christ’s College, my joint alma mater if such a thing exists, they started walking out again, only to be grabbed and manhandled out of the bar by some of the people inside whilst being (allegedly) subject to a hail of anti-Semitic abuse. They complained to the college authorities; two students have been punished for the assault bit, which could, the authorities felt, be proved, but none for the “hail of anti-Semitic abuse” bit, which, they thought, could not.

Why am I sharing this news with you? Well, I got sent two e-mails about it yesterday from the Master of Christ’s College (who is, for all that, a woman) setting out the College’s side of the story for the benefit of the alumni i.e. a bunch of people most of whom, like me, graduated decades ago. Without that bit of public relations, I would probably never have heard about the whole saga, as I don’t read the newspapers that have run it (and if I had to go into work today, which I don’t, I probably wouldn’t be writing this even if I had). Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

More seriously, this is a great illustration of how the digital, social media age has come to affect established institutions. Not only can people find out about all sorts of things that are pretty tangential to their everyday lives, it’s got to the point where we kind of expect to know them. The Master of Christ’s is only the latest to get caught on the horns of a dilemma. Don’t say anything, and you look as if you have something to hide (and perhaps even attract more attention because of that, the so-called Streisand Effect); say something, and get guaranteed extra attention from people who were blissfully ignorant of it all five minutes ago, and will probably complain about “being dragged into it all” to boot. Personally, I do feel a bit as if someone else’s business has just been firmly poked into my nose.

As for the incident itself,  as I wasn’t there, I naturally have no idea what really happened. However, it also nicely illustrates the practical difficulties of proving anything  in a judicial or quasi-judicial setting when all you have is one person’s word against another’s, or in this case, several persons’ words against several other persons’. If there’s one thing that’s a feature of controversial judicial proceedings, it’s that. It’s often the biggest practical difficulty in getting convictions in rape cases, for example. In this case, whilst there was apparently CCTV footage to show the Jewish students being bundled out of the bar, and to show those involved, of course, CCTV cameras don’t record sound, so the only evidence as to what was being said comes from the people involved. If what they say is contradictory, you can’t catch anyone in a lie that destroys their credibility, and assuming you’re being at all serious about presuming innocence, what choice do you have but to give the accused the benefit of the doubt?

In some situations, smartphones with video capacity operated by witnesses have provided an answer, or at least some entertaining YouTube videos. However, there are still some things, like being thrown out of a bar, that just happen too fast for people to start pulling out their phones and recording. There’s no simple answer to this problem, and if it turns out that it resulted in injustice here, it wouldn’t be the first time.

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