Tom Sutcliffe: No fair trials in the court of public opinion

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The Independent Online

I heard the phrase "the Court of Public Opinion" quite a few times yesterday morning – prompted by interviews and discussions anticipating the fact that MPs were all going to get a letter from Sir Thomas Legg and a lot of them weren't going to like it.

The Court of Public Opinion, it was implied, was the kind of court that defence barristers dread appearing in front of – stern in judgment and impatient with pleas in mitigation.

It might not be fair that MPs who had broken no House of Commons rules were facing what amounted to a retrospective fine for an offence they hadn't actually committed – but the Court of Public Opinion wasn't much interested in justice as far as MPs were concerned. It wanted redress and punitive measures, and it was likely to take a dim view if those it identified as miscreants didn't meekly queue up for a financial birching.

It seemed possible that the Court of Public Opinion had been weighing on Sir Thomas Legg's mind too – not explicitly involved in the audit of MPs' expenses – but surely hovering there somewhere in the background as he worked out who had to pay what.

I found myself thinking about the Court of Public Opinion's track record of judgment in the past and hoping very fervently that I never appear in front of it. This might sound like an affront to democracy. What is it, you might argue, but a jury court writ large? Not just 12 ordinary citizens but millions of them, distilling a consensual morality out of instinct and indignation. The only problem being that as imperfect as the jury system might be it does at least confront its members with evidence on both sides and its opinion is decided after due deliberation.

In the Court of Public Opinion, by contrast, the fact that some jury members have nodded off during the defence presentation or have just wandered in as the final vote is being taken is no bar to full participation. Indeed, it can sometimes seem as if it is the duty of its participants to consult their own prejudices first while setting aside the detailed facts of the matter from their minds.

The Court of Public Opinion always sits during lurid murder cases – and almost invariably delivers a handful of verdicts before the charges have been laid. And it has proved absolutely terrible in the past at distinguishing between media inventions and hard fact. The Court of Public Opinion found Lindsay Chamberlain guilty of the murder of her baby long before an Australian court did, largely on the grounds that it was a bit spooky to call your child Azaria. And once the court's views had become known, the media was only too happy to bolster its findings with further speculations.

Some members of the Court of Public Opinion, you may remember, even briefly toyed with the idea that the McCanns had done away with their own daughter – in part because it was getting a bit boring to feel sorry for them day after day with no new plot twist in sight. Fortunately, the Court of Public Opinion is as good at overturning its own judgments as it is in issuing them prematurely.

It has another deficiency too, which is that although it is marvellously expeditious in arriving at a verdict, it is very poor at laying down case law which might govern future conduct. That isn't its business, of course. It's up to other people to sort out the details while it deals in banner headlines. The only difficulty being that while it can't be bothered to read the fine print it reserves the right to find it an outrage later should the whim strike. With very few exceptions it's always worth an appeal against its findings.

Laughs we could still have had without Ernie

It was generous of Eric Morecambe's son to characterise the proposed break-up of Morecambe and Wise as a narrowly averted national tragedy. "It's almost impossible to believe that we could have been deprived of all the fun and laughter they brought to people's homes in the years following," he said – referring to the discovery of an old letter in which Wise, who'd apparently been getting grief at home, suggested breaking up the act.

Morecambe eventually persuaded him otherwise – and the act survived a critically mauled television debut ("Television: the box they buried Morecambe and Wise in" was one critic's response at the time) to become a fixture in the schedules. But wouldn't Morecambe have found another straight-man relatively quickly? And might he not have found one with slightly better comic timing?

In my memory of the act, Ernie was the one you put up with because Eric was so good – and I'm a bit sceptical about the idea, advanced by Ken Tynan, among others, that Ernie was an indispensable part of the comic chemistry. Comedy history might well have have been very different if Morecambe and Wise hadn't paired up with Eddie Braben, their long-time scriptwriter, but I'm willing to bet we'd still have been laughing at Eric even if he'd replied: "Very sorry to hear that Ern, but I quite understand".

Let the taxpayer see this boardroom art

It was slightly startling to read that the Royal Bank of Scotland has been sitting on an art collection totalling some 2,200 pieces, including – by the bank's own admission – 10 pieces of national museum quality and another 40 of historical importance.

I know there was an era when large corporations were encouraged – even nagged – to increase their spending on fine art and new commissions, and I seem to remember thinking it was an excellent idea at the time.

It looks a bit different from this side of the banking crash. I get annoyed enough when my bank wastes money sending me a glossy magazine that I haven't asked for (and never read) but I would be furious to learn that they'd also diversified into a career in fine art curatorship, the fruits of which were largely out of sight in executive boardrooms.

I don't suppose it's the best time to sell – and there would be the usual fuss about national heritage – but shouldn't they be encouraged to divest themselves of these holdings as soon as practically possible and use the proceeds to nudge their share price closer to the price at which the taxpayers get their money back? Or, alternatively, make damn sure that any taxpayer who's interested can see the paintings they've got.

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