Content providers play morality regulators of guilty until innocent

Exactly what moral principle is upheld by keeping an accused man offscreen is not easy to deduce, writes Terry Prone

Content providers play morality regulators of guilty until innocent

Yesterday’s Sunday Independent carried a major scoop: Michael Colgan’s statement of apology. He said that when he left the Gate Theatre earlier this year after more than three decades at the top in the theatre, he believed he’d done a good job, had been a good boss, and been liked by his staff. Not all of that, he now acknowledges, was the reality.

One of the insights in his statement deserves to be made into a poster and stuck on the wall behind every ageing CEO: “When they laughed at my jokes, I thought it was because I was funny. I think now it was because I was their boss.”

What Colgan rejects is the possibility that this behaviour might be equated with sexual crimes, or that accusation amounts to conviction. On that last one, he’s right, but the fact is that 2017 is the year when accusation BECAME conviction, and when ‘innocent until proven guilty’ died on the vine. The popular certainty that certain figures in entertainment are guilty is leading us with terrifying celerity to a mob sentencing much more severe than would be handed down by a judge. What we are seeing is career extermination and retrospective silencing, no matter what the worth of the work done by the artist prior to the accusations.

In the case of the comedian Louis CK, whose ventures into what are now being mildly called “sexual misconduct” were widely known about and which seem to have leaked into his standup performances, the man himself has stated unequivocally that “these stories are true”. But it was the accusations that empowered production houses to axe him from current and future schedules, just as it was accusations which wrote an end to Kevin Spacey’s career.

Of course, it can be said that Mel Gibson was once in a similar position, and that his career has recovered to the extent that he’s one of four star names in a film to be released pre-Christmas, but I don’t remember, at the time of Gibson’s disgrace, moves to stop audiences from seeing his previous work, whereas not only is the next series of House of Cards gone for its tea, but the word is that Netflix are likely to stop us watching existing parts of it, presumably because we’d all be morally polluted by watching Kevin Spacey in anything.

Now, I was bored with House of Cards after the first series, so I’m not going to miss it, but I resent like hell the people who made a product, publicised it, achieved a massive global audience for it, and in the process made a cart-load of money out of it, now deciding to be censor-in-chief and stop everybody looking at earlier episodes. If they do so, it would be the latest examples of late-onset morality regulation on the part of content purveyors.

Another example of that late-onset morality means that editing scissors have been taken to the first version of All the Money in the World in order to remove Kevin Spacey from it.

Scuttlebutt, says Ridley Scott, the director, never wanted Spacey for the role in the first place and is just thrilled to have the excuse to excise him from the record and get Christopher Plummer, his first choice, to take on the role. The plan is to have the whole thing in the can in less than 10 days’ shooting, edit the new bit into the older whole, and let it off in time for Christmas, during which season all this production drama will feed into the desire of theatre-goers to see if Plummer can pull it off. Which of course he will, because he is one hell of an actor. He’s also a difficult character, by his own autobiographical portrayal, who truly hates that he’s best known for starring as Captain Von Trapp in a film he famously dubbed “The Sound of Mucous”. Hey, if Julie Andrews can forgive him for that, the rest of us have no choice.

But we’re not done with the pre-Christmas killing of content, done in some kind of gesture towards the preservation of public morals. The BBC has removed an Agatha Christie drama from its Christmas schedule. The title of the production is laden with unintended irony, Ordeal by Innocence. It was due to hit the airwaves on St Stephen’s Day with an actor named Ed Westwick playing one of the lead roles, but since two women in the US have accused the British actor of raping them in his American home four years ago, the Beeb has decided that, while it’s making no judgment at all at all, nevertheless until the whole thing is resolved, presumably in a court of law, they’re shelving the film.

The actor whose situation has caused the shelving of the film has issued a statement.

“It is disheartening and sad to me that, as a result of two unverified and provably untrue social media claims, there are some in this environment who could ever conclude that I have had anything to do with such vile and horrific conduct. I have absolutely not,” he said.

The rest of the cast must feel like issuing a statement of their own, pointing out that, whatever about Westwick being provably innocent of what he’s accused of, the entire remainder of the cast hasn’t been accused of anything, yet are having the marvelous showcase of a Christmas TV outing denied to them in an arguably crazy case of guilt-by-association. Westwick will have been paid for his acting. (As will the other actors, but that’s beside the point.)

So the BBC, having paid money to a man accused of rape, are giving the taxpayer the strangest of bad value by not letting them see what they’ve paid for. Exactly what moral principle is upheld by keeping an accused man offscreen is not easy to deduce. Sinners have played saints in movies. That’s what acting is — pretending to be someone else rather than oneself, and if it’s done properly, the audience forgets everything other than the fictitious person.

It is as if, in order to prove themselves virtuous, production and broadcasting outfits are creating a modern version of the medieval anathema, whereby anyone accused of vile deeds is ipso facto guilty and to be fired, shamed, and shunned, with all of their work burned at the crossroads.

In the past, Irish censors, worthy individuals properly appointed by the State, banned books likely to pollute the minds of the rest of us. Until we got sense and stopped being ridiculous. Now, commercial organisations not appointed by anybody, are banning content, not even on the basis that it’s likely to pollute us, but because being associated with one performer within the content might damage the commercial organisation’s brand.

Never mind due process. Never mind the rights of the audience. Never mind the rights of innocent fellow actors.

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