Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Joining the dots: general ignorance and prejudiced juries

Earlier on today I popped downstairs and caught an episode of Pointless. It's an entertaining BBC quiz show, hosted by Alexander Armstrong, ably supported by his "Pointless friend", Richard, and one I have mentioned before. A pair of friends of mine have even been contestants. None of that is relevant tothe topic above, but who doesn't like a bit of local colour before visiting the boring relations? ;-) The show revolves around a central conceit. They ask a hundred people to list or name something in a hundred seconds. One of today's tasks was to cite a year in which a British general election occurred. Two contestants seemed to think that the UK is America, believing that elections run on a four-yearly basis. They don't. I'm not unhappy saying I couldn't pin down whether it was five or six, as the current government has faffed about with the previous system for no good reason, reducing it from a possible maximum of six to a steady tick-tock of five. I would be happier if I had known without doubt, but that the change is so recent makes me feel less alarmed that I possess the right to vote. ;-)

The hundred people asked to list years in which elections had occurred since the end of WWII then managed to muster a score of thirty-eight people (38 of the 100) who were aware that there had been an election in 2010. That's the most recent general election we have had. I cannot offhand think of a reason to know when elections happened. I know that Thatcher came in around the time I was born (actually 1979), and Blair got in when I was at school (1997), and that Churchill got turfed out at the end of WWII (1945, though I couldn't recall whether it might have been '46 - sorry, Mr Atlee!). But I make an exception for the last election that happened. If it happened two years ago, you can remember it. Or if you can't, then let's slide onto the second point to which I referred in the title.

I just ambled downstairs to bestow my wisdom on the folks, as I am nothing if not generous, and happened to see the ticker running along the bottom of the BBC News screen. It told me that as a result of someone's evidence to the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, it had been said/claimed/declared that any jury considering some claim would be inevitably biased, and so there was no prospect of a fair trial. A couple of years ago, some folks broke into my house and stole some of Dad's things. The police's system of protecting the identities of suspects is hialriously full of holes, so we know who they were. That is to say, Mum told me and I shortly thereafter forgot. But Dad surely remembers. So if one of us had to serve on a jury considering a charge against one of them, it'd be reasonable to consider us biased, and remove us from the jury.

But the country I live in has tens of millions of people, tens of millions of people eligible for jury duty, and a large share of them don't even know when the last general election was. In the face of that sort of evidence, I don't think it sensible to believe in the impossibility of a fair trial. There is a vast number of totally clueless people out there. And, hey, in here! Ask me to consider a matter of economic theory and watch how speedily my brain turns to jelly. Ask me even to look at my bank statement and you'll get a glare, a flicker of the eyes toward it, and a wholesale flight from the room! In a word, if you just ask enough people, you will eventually find a dozen - enough to fill up a jury - who know bugger all about whatever's happening. Your only problem then is that they might not know anything about everything, and if that's an argument against juries, then they should never have been brought into existence. Unless you happen to believe that everyone a thousand years ago was brighter than wot we is today, milud. Of course, juries are older than that (don't strike me, fellow Classicists), but I'm mainly discussing the biggest nation on the British Isles right now.

We have evidence of ignorance of facts absolutely fundamental to participation in our democracy. So why not see this as a good thing? We'll never, not even if we fasten everyone to chairs for spoon-feeding of information, get everyone fully up to speed on all the details of the nation. So let's use this as a positive and refute the idea that it's possible to pollute juries to the extent that they cannot give a verdict. These days we simply have too many people for that to be true.

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