Logic versus emotion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 September, 1997, 12:00am

There is a rather chilling episode at the end of the third act of Julius Caesar. Mark Antony has delivered his famous oration ('friends, Romans, countrymen') and roused the mob to fury over Caesar's assassination.

They find a passer-by who has the same name as one of the conspirators. He explains he is not a conspirator, but a poet. 'Tear him for his bad verses,' shouts the mob, and kills him anyway.

As so often in Shakespeare, profound insights into human behaviour are encapsulated in brief episodes and squeezed into small corners of a crowded canvas.

This is the way in which masses of people behave when swept along by waves of anger and regret. They feel the need to punish someone. Once a suitable candidate has been identified, he is for it. If the facts inconveniently refute the theory that he is to blame, then he is punished for something else.

If an example closer to home is required, then it was supplied last weekend by the reader who wrote in to protest at my temerity in maintaining that the Princess of Wales was not assassinated by a posse of photographers.

Just as I had predicted, the initial position that 'the photographers killed her' was transforming itself gradually into 'the photographers should be blamed because they had hounded her in the past', which is emotionally satisfying but not very logical.

I have the deepest respect for the feelings of loss and regret which many people feel at the death of a woman they admired.

When these feelings lead to accusations that a particular group of men were guilty of a crime barely distinguishable from murder, and the consequential argument that the law on freedom of expression should be changed, then it is surely time for people to put their feelings on one side and look at the facts.

It is true that I was not in Paris on the night of the tragedy. I was not screaming 'murder' from the rooftops either. Those of us who waited for further details of what happened have now been vindicated by the discovery that all was not as it at first seemed.

The examining magistrate has now determined, according to reports last week, that there were no photographers within hundreds of metres of the fatal crash. The photographers were not responsible. They were not irresponsible. They were not present.

This is emotionally inconvenient, but it could have been worse. As a journalist in San Diego put it: 'What if this car had smashed into a vehicle loaded with sick children? Some people might view the speeding Mercedes as another example of the nobility racing through the streets with reckless abandon - peasants beware!' No doubt there is a tragedy to be written out of all this by some successor of Shakespeare. I trust he will manage a more subtle rendition of the relationship between the princess and the media than such simplicities as 'hunting' or 'hounding'.

It is, as The Economist put it last week 'difficult but not impossible' for the rich to achieve privacy . . . if they really want it.

Alternatively, you can join in the game, dropping a scoop here, offering a dazzling photo opportunity there. Expert players know that biting the hand as you feed it is an expected part of the act.

Readers are of course entitled to come to their own conclusions about all this. I would urge them only to consider carefully before concluding that any of it has a local application.

While the 'bash the media' bandwagon was rolling, all sorts of people climbed on it, but on closer inspection most of the complaints were of inaccurate coverage of personal matters. I do not defend inaccurate coverage of anything, but this is a wrong for which there is already an adequate remedy in the law of defamation.

Hong Kong needs a free press, not a hamstrung one. A conspicuous press-related calamity will always be exploited by the enemies of freedom.

Whose side are you on?