Sunday 28 June 2015

Due Process

I am a fairly informal person, with little love of bureaucracy, though I do recognise the needs it serves and indeed the importance of those. In particular, bureaucracy is developed to mitigate and manage risk, and to improve efficiency.

And that particular part of bureaucracy known as 'due process' is meant to minimise the risks of a miscarriage of justice. 

One of the growing risks for many organisations is reputational damage. It is so scary, so toxic and in the age of social media can occur so rapidly, that it can be tempting to react very quickly to any threat.

But we skip due process at our peril.

I have not written so far about the Tim Hunt affair. That was partly because I wanted to take my time to reflect on it; but also partly because I wasn't sure how accurate initial reports were. 

Various institutions reacted with extreme rapidity - presumably to limit the reputational damage they feared from being associated with his alleged remarks. But I am beginning to wonder if their haste may not have damaged their reputations too - because they did not follow a due process.

In any just system, however open-and-shut a case may appear, it is fundamental that someone accused has the right to present his or her case.  Tim Hunt was denied that right before being told to resign.

Now it appears that the main witness for the prosecution (as it were) may not be a credible and reliable one, and the case may be less open-and-shut than it appeared. And that leaves the institutions concerned with the unenviable prospect of - possibly - having to review their hasty decision once they have examined the available facts more closely.

For myself, I thought the twitter response was brilliant: the #distractinglysexy selfies posted of women engaged in every type of scientific endeavour was a wonderful demonstration of what needed to be said, and was witty and not abusive.

But I found it less edifying when those who questioned the rush to dismissal were portrayed as the establishment closing ranks to protect one of their own.  That may have been what was going on, but I am not convinced. I don't think it irrelevant that women scientists who have worked with Hunt thought the reported comments were not typical of the man they knew; and now it turns out that the initial account is not only contested in several details, particularly the context; but was also promulgated by someone whose own accuracy and veracity do not seem to stand up to scrutiny.

Those who insist that the response was proportionate to the harm his alleged comments are perceived to have done point out that he is not being stripped of his livelihood; they are honorary positions from which he has been forced to resign. 

But I think that, particularly to a man at his stage in life, reputation is important, and that we are all entitled to our good name, unless we forfeit that right.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

I do not know whether Hunt is as foolish and mysoginistic as the initial reports suggested, though increasingly I am doubting it.

But my real point is that, like anyone else, he should be deemed innocent until proven guilty, and that the lack of due process in the way various institutions dealt with the PR crisis is an injustice, and reflects very poorly on them. Surely the correct response would be an immediate statement distancing themselves from the reported remarks, and including that they were going to investigate further, including asking Hunt in for a meeting to hear his side of the story.

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