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Sunday 11 September 2011

Throwing a tantrum... let the punishment fit the crime.

Three similar offences in different countries with very different punishments but maybe lessons to be learned.


The first, in December, 2008, Muntadar al-Zaidi, an Iraqi television journalist, hurled his shoe, closely followed by the second of the pair at US President George Bush. Both missiles missed their target but al-Zaidi was floored by security guards and arrested. This event took place during a news conference in Iraq, in conditions where one would have hoped there was a high level of security, which was clearly lacking.


The second took place in London in July, 2011, when Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corporation was giving evidence to a parliamentary enquiry into alleged phone hacking. Jonathan May-Bowles (aka Jonnie Marbles) pushed a paper plate covered with foam into the face of Mr Murdoch, the empty plate subsequently being thrown back at May-Bowles by Mr Murdoch's wife. The punishment for the first incident was six weeks in jail (with only half to be served), as well as £15 victim surcharge and £250 costs; the second incident of the paper plate being thrown back resulted in no charges being brought.


The third similar event took place a few days ago at the University Dufour in Geneva, Oskar Freysinger; a prominent Swiss right-wing politician had a plateful of cream thrown at his face. This event took place at a book signing following a debate on the place of Islam in Switzerland, in front of a packed auditorium. The young offender was escorted to the door by a security guard and told to go home. End of story.


Whilst in no way wishing to condone gratuitous violence or lack of respect, these three episodes teach us a lot about how we encourage incivility by promoting the instigators.


The shoe hurling incident was against a backdrop of a country in violent conflict, where loss of life through hostility was a daily occurrence; the incident received worldwide coverage, the perpetrator became a popular hero. The plateful of foam incident also received plenty of media coverage, especially in the United Kingdom. This was against a backdrop of so-called indignation at a phone hacking scandal that has already closed the News of the World, which was the English language newspaper with the largest circulation in the world. It also shows the double standards in the UK, as no legal action was taken as a result of the plate being thrown back at the architect of the first missile. It has also given ample publicity to a budding comedian who was unknown before the event. However, the Swiss cream pie which successfully reached its target has received very little coverage and the name of the launcher is unknown.


So, does the punishment fit the crime? Absolutely not, the sentences imposed are inversely proportional to the actual events. The lessons one might learn are that the punishment seems to reflect the level of embarrassment of those meant to protect (perhaps it is they who should be punished for failing their duties), and that cutting off the oxygen of publicity reduces, at very least, the on-going publicity given to an event.


Perhaps, even more importantly, given the relative peacefulness of the three countries where these events took place, the expectation of punishment is not a deterrent.


Article first published as Throwing a Tantrum: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime on Technorati.

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