I first heard about the allegation against Sil Fox when I was reporting Brendan Grace’s funeral in July 2019. Poor Sil, people said, dropping their voices. A respectful beat would pass. Then: wait until I tell you.
The story I heard in whispers that day sounded like the beginning of a rambling joke with no punchline. The comedian known his for cheerful suits and his the-wife-says-to-me-last-night humour had posed for a selfie with a woman in a bar. Afterwards she had accused him of groping her. She’d gone to the guards. Nobody could wrap their heads around it. It would never make it to court, they confidently predicted.
It did make it to court and it was only last week, 10 months later, that the full story emerged and Fox was able to clear his name. In December 2018 the then 85-year-old was on a night out when he was asked for a selfie. Selfie taken, light banter exchanged, everyone parts ways, end of story. Only it wasn't the end of the story. Later that night, one of the women approached Fox and accused him of sexually assaulting her. She called him a dirty old man. He said she should be so lucky. She said she was going to put him on Facebook. She went to the gardaí the following day and got more specific: she claimed he had put his left hand on her groin and tickled her vagina.
The video showed no indication something untoward occurred
The charge was dismissed in the Dublin District Court last Wednesday by Judge Paula Murphy because of inconsistencies between the woman's evidence and CCTV footage. The woman made a specific allegation that Fox had put his left hand on her groin for 30 seconds as the photo was taken, but the CCTV showed his hands on the table, other than for three seconds after the photo was taken. The court was impressed by the complainant, the judge said. But the video showed no indication something untoward occurred.
A shattered-sounding Fox told Liveline last week that he hadn’t worked since last July. “Sometimes I used to cry when I’d realise that nobody wanted to know anything about me.”
You can't do anything with all the predators out there, he told Joe Duffy. "This #MeToo movement that the women have is gone a bit too far."
It’s no surprise he would feel like that, but does he have a point? Fox was tapping into a generalised suspicion, most loudly expressed on social media, that the #MeToo movement has left us adrift in a puritanical neverland where there’s a female predator lurking behind every tree ready to shout “rape”. In reality, what happened to him is shocking partly because it is so rare.
There are no accurate figures for the number of false sexual harassment cases, but a 2009 Rape and Justice in Ireland study found that gardaí or the DPP decided a complaint of rape may be false in about 6 per cent of cases. A 2019 Law Reform Commission (LRC) report concluded that "false allegations of rape occur, but they are rare", and that jurors and the public tend to overestimate the prevalence of false allegations.
Given all of this – given the CCTV evidence – there are legitimate questions to be asked about why the DPP decided to proceed. Ultimately, our justice system did what it was supposed to, and got to the truth, but there’s no redress to Fox for the months of whispering and damage to his reputation.
Fox is wrong to say #MeToo has gone too far, but he has a point about the movement's rallying cry
There’s no way, either, to account for the chilling effect the case will have on genuine victims of harassment or abuse. The LRC report noted that although the conviction rate for rape offences has increased, “a high proportion of sexual assaults are simply not reported.” The #MeToo movement has made it easier for women to speak about their experiences, but it hasn’t made it easier for them to access justice.
Fox is wrong to say #MeToo has gone too far, but he has a point about the movement’s rallying cry. “Believe women” is a trite, reductive slogan. By implying that all men are capable of being predators and all women are too pure or too naïve to invent an allegation, it manages to be equally offensive to everyone. It was only ever meant as a battle cry, not the blanket guarantee it has somehow become. Blanket guarantees are as dangerous for people as they are for institutions, but such nuance gets lost in the clamour for online justice.
Just ask one of the slogan's highest-profile champions, Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. In the wake of Christine Blasey Ford's accusations against Brett Kavanaugh, Biden said we should believe women. Now that there's an allegation that he assaulted a former staff assistant, Tara Reade, in 1993, he has had to clarify that what he meant was that we should take "the woman's claim seriously when she steps forward. Then you have to look at the circumstances and facts." That doesn't work quite so well as a virtue-signalling social media hashtag, of course.
"Believe women" is as dangerous an overreach as the historical bias towards believing men
Justice can’t be meted out in hashtags. Complainants have a right to be heard. The accused have a right to a presumption of innocence. The place where these conflicting rights should be weighed up is in court – not on social media. But for that to be possible, victims need to have faith the system will give them a fair hearing and protect them from further victimisation.
Ultimately, “Believe women” is as dangerous an overreach as the historical bias towards believing men. All women can’t be grouped together in an amorphous blob loosely labelled “victims” any more than they can be grouped together as mammies or manipulative sexual temptresses. God knows, we tried that for long enough.