What the Ched Evans case tells us about justice in the age of new media.

For weeks liberal-left media have been leading an unofficial campaign to prevent Ched Evans resuming a career in professional football. Both he and the clubs that would employ him have been repeatedly ‘monstered’, as we say in the trade.

News that unfashionable Oldham Athletic were preparing to hand Evans a (relatively modest) contract stirred an expeditionary force of commentators into action, chiefly at the Guardian.

I will not revisit the detail of the case, nor opine on whether Evans should be allowed to kick a ball again and be paid for it, nor dwell on whether his sentence was too lenient. That he continues to protest his innocence won’t detain me either. Given that his case has been fast-tracked to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, it would be peculiar if he chose this moment to express remorse.

What I do find instructive is how the affair has played out in the media. Strange things happen when justice is viewed in the context of both celebrity and football, the new deities of a secular and politically disengaged populace. Was it not once a commonplace for so-called liberals that when a convicted felon has served his time, he should free to get on with his life on his own terms, within the law?

The rule of law is not divisible in other words – rehabilitation is a human right of all but the worst of the worst. Whether or not the criminal is a sympathetic character (how many are?) is irrelevant.

Not this time. Unless, of course, you believe Evans does fall into the category of the ’worst of the worst’. He is a convicted rapist, so that point is indeed arguable.

In one key respect, however, the world has turned upside down. In Evans’ case the ‘left’ has proved profoundly reactionary, allowing its extreme aversion to the nature and circumstances of a single crime to colour its perception of precisely what constitutes ‘justice’. Having been tried and convicted, and served his sentence, Evans must now be tried in the court of public opinion. An exception must be made. A new jury must be sworn in. He must not be allowed to return to his trade.

Social media plays its part, of course. Twitter can marshall (and manufacture) real (and faux) outrage among tens of thousands within the hour. Petitions can have tens of thousands of signatories before the day is out. Sponsors run scared. And business people, bureaucrats and politicians alike are terrified of landing on the wrong side of the argument. Eternal vilification in the ether will be their punishment.

Another factor is the way newspaper journalism has changed as content has moved online and into real time. Now the role of the commentator is not so much to inform, educate and expose, as to provoke a response from the reader. Nuance and complexity have been junked in the never-ending quest for perfect ‘clickbait’.

This is a manichean world, where the columnist trolls the reader, seeking to provoke and antagonise. If you believe Evans should be allowed to continue his career, you are an apologist for rape. if you believe lawyers like Phil Shiner should be able to challenge the military establishment, you are an apologist for Islamist terrorism.

Simplify, then exaggerate, and you will get the most readers and the most comments, and the advertisers will purr. Hedge and equivocate and the reader is lost. There is no place for ambiguity, even in the so-called ‘qualities’. An argument can rarely have two sides.

For commissioning editors, meanwhile, this is a perfect story that keeps on giving. It involves football, which occupies an absurdly privileged position in the national psyche, and (minor) celebrity, with which we have a prurient and seemingly inexhaustible fixation. And crime too, of course. It’s a full house that could only be bettered were Evans a Premier League star and not a journeyman striker of the lower divisions. More columns please!

Harry Roberts, who murdered three policemen in cold blood in the same year England won the World Cup, blighted the lives of many people still alive today. Yet the bien-pensant commentariat’s response to his release was muted. Roberts too is notoriously unrepentant – ‘the police aren’t real people to us’, he infamously remarked.

The Police Federation was not alone in expressing its disgust, but was hardly jostling to be heard.   

Roberts, like Evans, had served his time. But he is not a cause celebre: he doesn’t tick as many media boxes. He doesn’t have ‘legs’. Which is one reason why trial by a judge and jury will always be preferable to trial by media. They are, at least, nominally consistent.

Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor-in-chief

Author’s note: Ched Evans has this afternoon (8 January) issued an apology concerning the events surrounding his rape conviction following the collapse of his move to Oldham Athletic. He continues to protest his innocence.