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Hugo Rifkind

Being assaulted nearly put me on trial

Justice shouldn't just be for the person in the dock

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Way back in the late 1990s, I spent a lot of time in court. What happened, see, was that in the wee small hours of a drunken Edinburgh morning, my friend Jonny and I took a shortcut home through the disused railway tunnel that runs under Holyrood Park. I’d been through it many times, being enraptured with the magic of abandoned urban spaces and, perhaps more to the point, stupid, but never before had it contained a gang of pissed-up youths on a rampage. This time it did, and they put us in hospital.

Various arrests followed pretty swiftly. Scottish papers were interested, what with my father being in the Cabinet, and I still remember the special joy of walking into a pub not long afterwards — mouth stitched up, nose askew — and finding a bunch of my friends passing around a copy of the Evening News with the headline ‘15-year-old girl arrested for Rifkind assault’.

A few weeks later I got a weird call from a journalist. ‘We’ve heard you were the victim of a gay-bashing,’ he said. ‘A what?’ I said. ‘A gay-bashing,’ he said. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘No.’

At the time, I couldn’t figure out the logic. What kind of dumbarsed criminal, I wondered, reckons he’ll get an easier time with the law if he pretends that a run-of-the-mill mugging was actually a hate crime? Later, though, a friendly policeman explained that it was more likely a trick of lawyers. Let a (relatively) high-profile victim know that a court case might be embarrassing, the thinking presumably was, and he’ll be less likely to want there to be one.


Even this, of course, was a fairly daft strategy. Maybe it hadn’t filtered through to the Edinburgh legal and criminal fraternities, but this was a time of tight T-shirts and gender-bending revolution. I was a young, idealistic undergraduate, and frankly the thought of being gifted a degree of Britpop androgyny without having to snog a man for it was faintly appealing. As it turned out, even though the court case inexplicably dragged on for months and months, none of this stuff ever made it into print. Well. Until today.

What I realise now is that they could have aimed much higher. Instead, a court case could have threatened to reveal that my assailants had believed I was engaged in a Satanic orgy, or chanting Nazi slogans, or throttling a small and adorable dog, which then ran away. Anything really. And true or not, it could have been reported.

A similar thing happened a few weeks ago, notoriously, with Nigella Lawson. The state seeks to prosecute her former home helps and the world ‘learns’ that she takes drugs with her children and has a coke habit. Maybe she does, maybe she doesn’t. The point is, she’s not on trial. If a newspaper had made these allegations, apropos of nothing, you’d have the Hacked Off loonies shrieking from the rafters. Indeed, a newspaper would have had to prove it or end up in court itself. Yet it seems you can air any allegation you fancy, without condemnation, censure or even accountability, by smuggling it into a witness statement.

Maybe this is how it has to be. Maybe it’s the cost of open justice, and the only alternative is injunctiony nonsense making our courts opaque, rendering judges wholly unaccountable and driving a wedge between people and the law. From here, though, not being a lawyer, it doesn’t seem right at all. But for a quirk of fate, I’d be the dog-throttling guy to this day.

Sitting target

A marvellous, eye-boggling fuss has been brewing, meanwhile, over a picture of Dasha Zhukova (best known as the partner of Roman Abramovich) sitting on a sculpture. The problem being that it’s not just any sculpture. Rather, it is a sculpture designed — quite convincingly — to resemble a black woman performing as a chair.

It’s not that there’s anything inherently racist about a sculpture that looks like a naked black woman pretending to be a chair. Indeed, given that this particular sculpture was clearly inspired by Allen Jones’s ‘Chair’, which is a commentary on the fetishisation of female subservience, if anything, it’s a statement about as profoundly anti-racist as could be made.

The trouble comes, obviously, when you sit on it. If it helps, it’s like the difference between Lady Gaga appearing in a dress made of meat (as she did, quite famously, a few years ago), and a butcher spotting this and buying her, and frying her up.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.


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