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I’ll admit to some ignorance in my opening statement here – I don’t know too much about Italian laws on contempt of court.

I do know a little about British ones, though. And I can tell you that if this had been a British case involving a British man, the coverage that Francesco Schettino received in the past week would have led to him walking free from court.

We’ve seen some staggering material in the press over the past few days regarding the Costa Concordia tragedy off the Tuscan coast. They haven’t even found all the bodies yet, but already it seems that Schettino, that unhappy vessel’s captain, has been convicted in the court of public opinion.

I don’t intend to repeat some of the claims we’ve all read in the media, but the outrage has been palpable. A little bit of racism has been part of the coverage, in some quarters. Lazy Italians, eh? And a coward, too. That’s a bit like the end-of-the-pier joke about The Book of Italian War Heroes. Nice work. That rhetoric takes us forward as a society and a species.

There’s a fun term used in legal circles, which – ironically – has old Italian roots. The ancient Romans had it as: “Ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat.” That translates to: “The burden of proof lies on him who asserts, not on him who denies.”

In other words, you are innocent until you are proven guilty. And I would argue that this man cannot now be proven guilty. Francesco Schettino cannot possibly receive a fair trial.

For the people who would happily see this man dangle from a tree right now, those statements will be hard to understand. But I would urge you to try.

Instead of condemning this guy straight away, we should be thinking: why are we hearing all this stuff? Why is this guy being hung out to dry?

It seems awfully convenient. Especially if you are the parent company of an enormous cruise ship firm, and you had all those lovely profits to protect.

Plus, there’s so much we don’t know. It appears the ship ran into some rocks – but how do we know there wasn’t a problem with on-board safety procedures? Or with the fundamental design of the boat? How do we know there isn’t someone else equally culpable for this tragedy, who is hell-bent on pinning it on someone else?

We don’t. We should be suspicious about this steady feed of damning information. We should be asking questions. We should use our intelligence and think critically.

To hear some people slaughter this man has been disturbing. I agree it doesn’t sound good, but it’s obviously not meant to sound good. We cannot be sure of the facts; and they’re for a jury to decide. Who’s giving us this information, and why?

I’m going to give you some names. Their cases all make for interesting reading. I won’t explain who these people are, whether they are victims, accused, or – unhappily – neither.

Robert Murat. The Birmingham Six. The Yorkshire Ripper. Stephen Lawrence. Madeleine McCann. The Guildford Four. Colin Stagg. Barry George. Chris Jeffries. Lynette White. Millie Dowler. Michael Stone. Sion Jenkins.

Innocent people can, and do, get convicted of crimes. Even when a conviction is safe, the legal process, from the procedures of the police right up the judiciary, can be abused. The press can and will distort things. And sometimes the guilty are left to carry on committing crimes thanks to smokescreens caused by false convictions and blind investigational alleys.

This happens in every country in the world. It has happened in recent history in Britain. It can be to do with simple incompetence or out-and-out corruption.

So please, think critically, avoid scapegoating and wait until a verdict has been delivered, with the full facts and findings stated and accurately reported, before forming your opinions. And hope to god you are never accused of something you didn’t do.

Lynch mobs = not good.


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