I’ve recorded the facts of Hollie Bentley’s magistrate’s court appearance already. I would now like to add my own personal perceptions of the event.
When I arrived at the magistrate’s court today my heart was in my mouth. I can only begin to imagine the feelings that Hollie and her family were experiencing. It must be truly terrifying to be catapulted from a simple Facebook post, into an inexorable legal process which has already applied its most fearsome punishments against other Facebook users.
I learned that Hollie and her family had been subjected to physical threats from visitors to their home and from internet users. I found myself wondering how people managed to lose their sense of perspective so badly: what drives people to threaten a teenage girl with violence over something they wrote on a website? When did it become acceptable to exercise vigilante justice on a young person because you don’t agree with what they said?
The only answer I could come up with, was that some people have been whipped up into such a state of fear and paranoia by the recent riots that they have lost any sense of scale. I have to wonder to what extent this could be the fault of the mainstream media: newspapers and television.
Hollie is not unlike many teenage girls. She seemed shy and quiet, smiling nerviously as she sat in the waiting area before the hearing began. She sat and chatted to a university student friend of hers, who had attended the hearing to show moral support to Hollie. I got the feeling that Hollie had very little real conception of the enormous political and legal machine which appears to have set its great implacable heart against her.
Looking at her, I don’t see a master criminal who was orchestrating civil disobedience from her Facebook account. I see a teenage girl who made a controversial and arguably misguided Facebook post. I cannot visualise this girl arriving in Wakefield town centre on 13-14th August and throwing chairs through the window of JJB Sports in the company of her Facebook friends.
Listening to the magistrate during the hearing, I experienced a sensation of creeping dread. She talked of the lengthy sentences handed down to others found guilty of encouraging violent disoder under the Serious Crime Act in the past 2 weeks. She spoke of how people had died during the riots. She referred the case on to a higher court, which had greater sentencing powers.
If Hollie is found guilty of this offence under the Serious Crime Act, she will at the very least end up with a criminal record. If she is given a custodial sentence, she will be torn out of her community and away from her parents. On the basis of a Facebook post, which was at its very worst foolish, she will be thrown into a criminal system which will chew her up and spit her out, in order to make an example of her. The modern equivalent of placing her head upon a spike outside the Tower of London.
For the simple fact of showing support to the rioters, Hollie Bentley is facing criminalisation. For the purposes of the Serious Crime Act, it is necessary for the accused to have intended to cause a crime to be committed. However, the judicial system seems to be requiring Facebook users caught up in this process to prove their innocence, rather than requiring the prosecution to prove their guilt.
It is as if the vigilante behaviour of the public has now spread to our judicial system.