There is no middle way in this bizarre case

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The Independent Online

The case of Neil and Christine Hamilton, whose alleged antics have helped fill the silly-season news void this weekend, has given the nation an engrossing subject for debate. The story, as told so far, overflows with an abundance of detail that is both entertainingly engrossing and excruciatingly harrowing.

The difficulty is that both versions cannot be true. Either the former Tory MP and his wife are involved in a sordid crime, or they have been just as sordidly defamed. There is no middle way. Either the Hamiltons were peacefully entertaining some long-standing pals to frozen Bloody Marys, three courses and cheese at their seventh-floor Battersea flat, after a day of shopping and cleaning, or they were complicit in the brutal assault of a young woman in a flat in Ilford.

The Hamiltons are hardly Britain's most popular couple. His forced resignation as a Trade and Industry minister in the 1994 cash-for-questions affair, and his interminable court scrap with the Harrods tycoon, Mohamed Al Fayed, over the same allegations, did nothing to endear him to public opinion. Mrs Hamilton's highhanded, if feisty, defence of their character, like their joint attacks on the former BBC journalist Martin Bell, who successfully challenged Mr Hamilton for his Tatton seat in the 1997 election campaign, also made them far more enemies than allies. Their bankruptcy – over legal costs in a a libel action – won them no more public sympathy.

Lacking the knack for winning friends and influencing people, however, even when coupled with a penchant for an opulent lifestyle with more than a hint of sleaze, is not the same thing as criminal depravity. There is nothing in the couple's history – their public history, that is – that would lend credence to the latest allegations, just as (like most people) there is nothing that would absolutely exclude it.

Suspects in rape cases, where the alleged victim may not be named, are at a special disadvantage in the contest for public opinion. Courageous, brazen or foolhardy, the Hamiltons are deploying all the weapons in the limited armoury of suspects, up to and including the release to the media of their police interrogation. This places the onus squarely on the police and the accuser; they must swiftly furnish sufficient evidence, or end the inquiry. This is what common justice demands, and the Hamiltons have as much right to what remains of their good name as does their alleged victim.

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