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The age of pain

People used to define themselves by their pleasures – by their sexual preferences and lifestyle choices. Today, we increasingly define ourselves by our suffering and our weaknesses.

In the early 1980s, the French sociologist Luc Boltanski conducted an unusual study involving 275 letters that had been sent to Le Monde. All the letters involved a claim of injustice of some kind. What interested Boltanski was not whether the claims were valid, but how the letters editors immediately split them into two categories, basing their decision purely on how the claim was expressed.

In the first category were those letters that counted as protests of some kind: for instance, claims that an economic policy was regressive or that a war was unjustified. These were more likely to be signed by representatives of institutions, such as non-governmental organisations or universities.

In the second category were those letters that were treated, in effect, as paranoid. These saw guilt where others saw innocence, or innocence where others saw guilt. In Britain, they have become referred to as “green ink” letters. Inferences of the writer’s psychological state are tacitly drawn.

The interesting question, for Boltanski, lay in the grey area between the two. At what point do we attribute denunciations to the state of the world, and at what point to the state of the individual making them? The question usually arises most starkly when a mass killing occurs, and often in racialised terms: white murderers are “lone wolves” with a mental illness or repressed sexual desires, while dark-skinned murderers are “terrorists”.

The significance of Boltanski’s study is to remind us that the line separating “public politics” from “private distress” is culturally constructed, and not always very clear, even as we seek to police it. That line has rarely seemed less clear than it does today.

Consider the political phenomenon that has made 2016 such a historic year: populism. Tony Blair admitted in February that he was “baffled” by the rise of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn on the left. Policy professionals are exasperated by the “post-truth” politics espoused by Donald Trump and Brexit campaigners, and can’t understand why voters are so easily taken in.

This failure of understanding stems from an exaggerated deference to the norms of the public sphere, as if people engaged with public figures solely for public reasons. Hence pundits can only assume that Corbyn has unearthed several hundred thousand dormant Trotskyites in their sixties or Occupy participants in their twenties.

The reality may be more mundane. Thanks in part to Corbyn’s own uncharismatic persona, the Labour Party and Momentum offer vessels for feelings of frustration, distress and loneliness, from which political participation offers relief. Public arenas potentially help to alleviate personal troubles.

This is even clearer on the right. Support for Trump was known to be most concentrated in areas suffering growing levels of chronic physical and mental pain, as well as rising mortality rates. Recently the use of prescription painkillers has increased sharply in these areas, as have the overdoses that occur once users become addicts. The geographer Danny Dorling has similarly drawn connections between the Brexit vote and mortality rates in England and Wales.

Now consider another matter that has provoked exasperation among liberals of a certain age: the phenomenon of campus “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, which might suggest that some students see their personal feelings as more important than free speech. The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that American students are “coddled” and that they are clinging to an infantile vulnerability. In April, Stephen Fry accused victims of sexual abuse who cite their experiences as a reason for avoiding certain arguments of showing signs of “self-pity” (he later apologised).

This is partly a generational phenomenon. Those born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up in a society that was obsessed with health, activity and ambition. Offered no language with which to articulate vulnerabilities and anxieties, many have reached for the language of mental illness and victimhood. How else to defend ordinary human passivity, in a culture organised around ideals of athleticism and entrepreneurship?

The question still stands whether it is ­acceptable for personal struggles and grievances to become muddled with public intellectual debate. The panic surrounding student-led censorship (which gets enthusiastically amplified in the tabloid press) is now well out of proportion. Yet something new has emerged. Can it be suppressed again? Should it be?

***

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes. After the 1968 uprisings in America, there was a shared sense among many Democratic Party grandees that the student protesters lacked political realism, and were letting their hedonism and libidos get the better of them. The economic and social gains made by postwar liberalism were being taken for granted.

This view hardened over the course of the 1970s. Baby boomers and ’68ers became viewed as selfish and lacking in public decorum. Many prominent liberal intellectuals abandoned the left altogether and formed the splinter movement that became known as “neoconservatism”. Books such as The Fall of Public Man (1974) by Richard Sennett and The Culture of Narcissism (1979) by Christopher Lasch, both written from the perspective of the left, presented a view that private sentiment had overwhelmed proper public politics. All the while, the new Republican coalition of big business and the white working class gathered momentum.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that centre-left parties learned how to speak to this generation of so-called narcissists, by which point the work of Thatcher and Reagan was done. Yet one thing that became clear was that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s went far deeper than campus sit-ins or hippie free love. A revolution had occurred in capitalism – especially with the rise of consumer sovereignty – as much as in civil society.

There are obvious analogies here which pose a simple question: will “narcissism” have a similar effect on the left again today, or might political movements find a way of channelling the grievances that
now mobilise people? Would it necessarily be to Labour’s detriment if Corbyn appealed on a “private” level, or if people were joining the Labour Party partly to make themselves feel better?

In one respect, today’s emotional politics is the inverse of the 1960s. Back then, people were coming to define themselves by their pleasures: their sexual desires, consumer preferences, lifestyle choices. Today, many are coming to define themselves by their pains: past traumas, mental illnesses and chronic health conditions. With the breaking of taboos surrounding mental illness, people are increasingly likely to discuss their depression or anxiety, and possibly identify themselves accordingly.

The evidence of rising private distress accumulates weekly. An NHS study published in September showed that nearly a fifth of girls aged between 16 and 24 self-harm; 26 per cent reported some very recent mental-health condition. Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder have tripled in less than a decade. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates that at any moment a fifth of the working-age population is suffering a mental illness. One culprit always stands out in public discussion of these trends: digital technology.

It is tempting to seek simple cause-and-effect relations between technology and psychology but never very helpful. Rather than ask what Facebook or smartphones are “doing to us”, it might make more sense to ask how patterns of social and cultural life are being redrawn along digital lines. Just as the effect of consumerism in the 1960s changed much more than just how people shopped, so the effect of social media cannot be explained adequately by looking at what takes place purely “online”.

Consider four properties of digital networks which are reshaping the fabric of social life today, each contributing to the new politics of distress. First, they follow us ­everywhere: to work, at home, on holiday and at school. We scarcely find refuge outside of these networks; it follows that people will construct safe communities of empathy within them instead. The alternative would be to spend one’s entire existence in some overwhelming hybrid of work, training and public debate.

Second, they obey a binary logic. One/zero. Follow/unfollow. Like/unlike. It is not that Twitter users are oversensitive or devoted to censoring “free speech”: it’s that “blocking” and “muting” are integral to the architecture of Twitter. The risk is that politics starts to become shaped by an equally binary mentality, reduced to simple friend/enemy distinctions that are the substance of populism.

Then consider the changing status of language. Words shared digitally don’t disappear, but produce a constantly accumulating archive that generates its own anxiety. It’s never clear exactly who might delve into that archive – a market researcher, a family member, a potential employer? The potential of institutions to evaluate our characters remotely is growing rapidly. As one data analytics developer has put it, “all data is credit data”. Idle words carry consequences; or, at the very least, it feels as if they might.

Finally, digital media can operate at any scale of interaction, from the most intimate to the most public. This is in sharp contrast to the newspapers and pamphlets on which the Enlightenment public sphere of the 18th century was built, and around which liberal norms of public debate emerged. Nowadays, one-to-one letters and mass broadcasts share a single medium, with endless intermediary tiers.

A new digital pattern of social life is emerging which extends beyond the reach of any particular digital technology. One consequence of this is a cluster of new strains and anxieties placed on the self. Another is that we can no longer cleanly distinguish between the spaces to which we turn in search of care and compassion (or emotional release) and those to which we turn in search of reasoned argument. This affects “offline” spaces (including campuses) where forums of mutual care and those of debate will simply have to coexist, often with leakage between the two.

The left can refuse the above analysis, just as parts of the left once refused identity politics and feminism. But how might it ­respond otherwise?

The first way is to accept that the repoliticisation of social troubles is welcome but messy. When people participate politically for the first time, they generally don’t turn up speaking like David Miliband but often arrive with a grievance rooted in their own suffering. Sometimes they appear self-pitying – but this can change. The most impressive anti-austerity campaigns have been fought by disability rights activists, demonstrating that day-to-day physical and mental needs can be politicised to considerable public effect.

The second response is to think deeply and widely about the forms of pain that are driving so much of our politics and forging political identities. The medicalisation of psychological distress cannot continue indefinitely: the NHS won’t be able to pick up the mounting bill for much longer, and medicalisation does not address the fundamental causes. The political question is how non-medical institutions (schools, workplaces) might be reformed or invented so as to treat people with greater care in the first place. Providing individuals with social and public routes out of their personal troubles will be critical, as the idea of “social prescribing” hints.

A large, possibly growing, section of the population today might appear as if it belongs in the second category of Boltanski’s letter writers: paranoid, emotional, post-fact. A crucial question is whether to leave them to dwell in their passivity, or whether they might be supported, not only to reduce their distress but to target some of it outwards, turning private pain into protest.

William Davies teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London and is the author of “The Happiness Industry: How the Government and Big Business Sold Us Well-Being” (Verso)

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit