Urbain Grandier, as Aldous Huxley recounts (The Devils of Loudon, 1952), was a French clergyman of the seventeenth century. In 1634 he was executed. He’d been tried and found guilty of witchcraft. This charge had a sexual dimension; the nuns who first accused Grandier (in 1632) said that he had sent devils to seduce them. Of course, no modern person would admit to believing in witchcraft, so it’d surely be hard to find anyone today who thought that Grandier’s burning at the stake in front of a large crowd was warranted. To modern eyes, Grandier’s story comes across as picturesque and barbaric; and, ultimately, remote.
There are some other things relevant to Grandier’s case. (Bear in mind that Grandier was real person.) Despite torture, he never confessed to anything. But he had been critical of authority (specifically, Cardinal Richelieu). He was good looking, and he had a reputation as sexually adventurous.
But anyway, that was a long time ago.
Take Colin Stagg, then. In 1992 he was prosecuted for the murder of Rachel Nickell. Stagg never confessed to anything (despite attempts at entrapment by an undercover police woman, posing as a love interest). No evidence connected him with the crime he was accused of. The Metropolitan Police still went ahead and put him on trial for the murder, literally on the grounds that they believed he was the kind of man who would have done it. The case against him failed – as you’d hope. But the Daily Mail continued to insinuate, for almost a decade, that Stagg was a sexual deviant who had ‘gotten away with murder’. In 2008 a man already committed for murder was convicted of the crime Stagg had been accused of.
Hysteria is a word that’s been used. Huxley suggests ‘crowd-delirium’:
… the crowd-delirium can be indulged in, not merely without a bad conscience, but actually, in many cases, with a positive glow of conscious virtue.
I don’t think it’s reaching too far to suggest that where crowd-delirium exists today, it’s at least partly embodied in newspaper reporting. The 2007 murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, Italy, seems to have set off something very nasty. Here’s Sue Carroll in the Mirror:
Articulate and flirtatious with moist Bambi eyes, her status, carefully manipulated by her garrulous publicity-driven parents, morphed from suspected murderer to victim long before the trial. A flight home had been arranged and grandiose plans were afoot for the prodigal daughterâ€™s return with lucrative book deals in the pipeline, movie rights under discussion and TV interviews planned.
The brutal murder of a beautiful young girl in a vile sex game was turned into a side issue. The fact Knox had wantonly and without a single vestige of shame named an innocent man, Patrick Lumumba, as Meredithâ€™s killer was also conveniently forgotten by fans and family.
And here’s Libby Purves in the Times:
The American campaign for Amanda Knox (nobody seems to bother about Guede or Sollecito) is almost libellously critical of the Italian court; but for what itâ€™s worth, both evidence and reconstruction look pretty convincing to me. Not least because of the perpetratorsâ€™ heavy use of drugs and drink â€” the defence put their changing stories down to memory loss â€” and because of the febrile sexual obsession that seems to have driven the young attackers.
It seems unlikely that it was deliberate murder: more like an extreme episode of disinhibited, brain-fogged sexual bullying that ran out of control. Three against one, fuelled by a toxic mixture of male excitement and female resentment of a â€œprigâ€.
You need more than imagination for a just conviction, and there isn’t evidence for a “vile sex game” or “brain-fogged sexual bullying”. It’s overwhelmingly likely that the ‘sex game’ theory is nothing more than a construct of the prosecution. And I’d suggest, incidentally, that a plausible explanation of why the investigation turned to Lumumba (a black man) is that the police attempted to fit him up by extracting a suitable confession from Amanda Knox; and that they did this on the basis that Knox had sent a text message to Lumumba (her employer) which said ‘ci vediamo’ (‘see you later’).
The more you look at the story of Sollecito and Knox, the more innocent they seem. And if they are innocent, all you have in their conviction is further injustice to add to the original crime. By contrast, there is much stronger evidence against Guede, who was convicted earlier this year. I suspect that this is the very obvious direction of travel for those not ‘transcending downwards’. But there’s a species of opinion writer that’s not interested in the rights or wrongs of one individual case. Purves again:
What is really sad though â€” see, even I jib at saying â€œwrongâ€ â€” is the idea of â€œadventurousnessâ€: sex made â€œziplessâ€, gourmet, divorced from affection, understanding, wonder or hope. You clock a hot piece, pull, mate and discard with hardly a name-check. It rounds off the evening but blunts your humanity. Many grow out of it and find faithful partnerships. Some find later life haunted by it. Some misunderstand the other partyâ€™s intentions and are devastated, or become stalkers.
At worst, a few confuse the general tolerance with permission to bully and coerce.
But as adventures go, frankly, the fling-culture is rubbish. And the saddest thing of all is how very miffed many people will be with me, for saying so.
A shorter Purves: someone must be doing something wrong; someone should burn.