Editorial....20th February, 2020
The sentence handed to a man who kicked a dog to death (jailed for 24 weeks and banned indefinitely from keeping animals, reported in our Biddulph edition), has got me thinking.
Not about the spirited neighbour who tracked down and exhumed the poor dog’s body and sent it to the RSPCA — she deserves if not a medal then a job with the RSPCA — and not about the prison sentence; kicking an innocent animal to death is unforgivable.
No, it was more about the fact that the man got the sack because of the social media backlash.
What else, I wonder, would get a person the sack in today’s culture and climate? Certainly not drink driving, even though a drink driver is in charge of a lethal machine and could kill a human being.
An outraged family member of a drink driver recently complained bitterly about his case appearing in the Chronicle. We’d got no right, data protection etc, and she’d never buy the Chron again. The driver was three times over the limit. Three! That’s towards the higher end of readings we see and he was probably fairly inebriated; a danger to himself and others.
We politely emailed back to say it was he with whom she should be annoyed, but deleted a line to the effect of “if you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime” to avoid further arguing.
But still, drink driving, potentially fatal as it is, carries relatively little social approbation. You might be sacked if your job was driving or carried some weight in the community, but that’s about it.
Maybe that’s because within memory (or at least mine) it was not as serious as it is now: 40 years ago a friend stopped while absolutely hammered was let off with a warning and told to go home (which was only round the corner).
Conversely, using a phone is more dangerous than drink driving but has not yet achieved the stigma it merits — in a few years it doubtless will. The downloading of indecent images may attract a sacking today but — the opposite to mobile phone use — I suspect society is going to have to deal with this more compassionately in future, if police reports are to be believed. The police have long list of people who have downloaded indecent images but not the resources to prosecute.
What about domestic abuse? There are literally scores of court cases concerning domestic violence — they’re so common we don’t send reporters to cover them any more — and it’s doubtful you’d be sacked for it: if every attacker was sacked, unemployment would rocket.
You can’t compare kicking a dog to death and hitting a partner, but hitting a partner is clearly serious. We get odd complaints about court cases but most complaints about “domestics” are when domestic protection violence orders are imposed. These are to protect a battered partner where a court case would take time or a conviction is unlikely.
The perpetrators sometimes complain — they wrongly believe they won’t go in the paper if it doesn’t go to court. Once a son complained because he was worried about his mother. We explained that the report defined the area from which the abusive partner was banned, and said if the neighours knew, it might actually protect his mum, which mollified him (this is not just fobbing off, it’s true — a court order is no use if people don’t know).
In the dog cruelty case, neighbours actively sought out the dog’s body but in domestic abuse cases, most people are probably not so keen to intervene; it’s hard, and a big step to take. I knew of someone who reported a man for possibly hitting his wife (she had dementia, not that that excuses it) and felt dreadful. Indeed, we probably all know someone who we suspect of domestic violence, even mild, or being overly controlling, but never do anything.
Of other offences, theft might get you the sack if trust was an issue, drunkenness not; overall I suspect most employees would overlook an offence committed by a good member of staff and use it as an excuse to get rid of someone who was trouble.
Reaction to all these offences is, of course, a reflection of society as much as the crime itself.
Eighty years ago local butchers were up in arms over plans to stop pre-stunning of animals before slaughter. Today only a minority of people are allowed — for religious reasons — to slaughter animals without pre-stunning, but at the start of WWII it was the norm, and Congleton councillors argued about the rights and wrongs of it. People did go to court for cruelty to animals but I suspect a man who kicked a dog to death would be fined, if it even went to court.
Domestic violence was prosecuted back then — and neighbours would report violence to police — but it’s remarkable how often court officials cracked jokes about what we see today as serious offences.
Suicide was still a crime back then, too, hard as it may seem to believe. Prosecution was possibly rare and I’ve never come across one in the Chronicle. A BBC article reports that a Times leader on the subject noted that in 1956, 5,387 failed suicide attempts were known to police, and 613 were prosecuted. Most were discharged, fined or put on probation, but 33 were sent to prison.
Some crimes that would make the national news today were less shocking a century ago: poaching was common and taking pot-shots at gamekeepers and even the police not out of the ordinary. True, it would land you in prison with hard labour, but it was not the headline news it would be today. I suspect much justice was meted out quietly when a gamekeeper or copper came across the same poacher at, say, the top of a long flight of stairs. On the other hand indecency, particularly involving children, was not reported except very briefly, usually with reference to “unspeakable acts”.
Further back, garrotting — half-strangling victims so they put up less of a fight — was not uncommon, though more so in cities.
But some things never change …. garrotting was not taken seriously until an MP was attacked.