Where morality is just an excuse for public bullying

Some misplaced actorly instinct seemed to overcome Chris Langham as he prepared to face the world when he emerged from jail this week. He was unshaven, hollow-eyed and looked even more hangdog than usual.

“My conscience is clear,” he told reporters after his sentence for downloading child pornography had been reduced on appeal, but that, frankly, was not how he looked. A make-up department preparing him for an on-screen role as a playground-lurker could have not have done a better job.

The press has played to type, too. Headlines have thundered the public’s disapproval of Langham’s early release. The full vocabulary of moral condemnation, from “outrage” to “pervert” and back again, has been deployed. Sincere, good-hearted representatives of children’s charities have been on hand to stoke up concern and anger. A woman from the NSPCC rightly pointed out that those who looked at disgusting images of children were effectively encouraging their abuse, which was a deepening problem on the internet. Michele Elliott, director of Kidscape, argued that, if anything, Langham’s sentence should have been increased by the Appeal Court judges. “What kind of message does this send out?” she asked. “That downloading child pornography is not that serious so therefore we can release him early?”

These questions are trickier to answer than they may appear. As someone who works with the victims of these crimes, Michelle Elliott will know better than most the horrific reality and effects of them, but that does not make her the best person to decide society’s response. Langham has said that his life is ruined, and he is almost certainly right. Few TV or film companies, and fewer publishers, will risk being considered soft on paedophilia by commissioning work from him. After the humiliation of the court case and sentence, it is surely absurd to suggest that, by reducing his sentence to six months in prison, the Appeal Court was letting Langham get away with something, or that would-be offenders would somehow be encouraged by his treatment.

The truth is that, if we were a society in which morality and humanity were genuine rather than an excuse for public bullying, it would be accepted that Langham’s offence was certainly serious enough for him to be sent to prison but that it is not for the rest of us to turn that into a life sentence. People make horrific mistakes in their lives and do the wrong thing; it is for the law, not for the public or for the press, keening with self-righteousness and moral outrage, to impose the appropriate punishment.

If an indicator of a society’s decency and maturity is the way it treats those who have done wrong, then it seems that we are becoming less civilised year by year. In a grown-up culture, for example, the idea that an investigation into penal reform should be led by someone who has actually been in prison would seem to be rather sensible. Yet when the Conservatives announced recently that the former perjurer Jonathan Aitken was to do the job, the rent-a-quote moralists were quick to express outrage. Aitken’s appointment was ” a return to the disgraced, scandal-ridden Tory past”, announced a particularly sanctimonious Labour whip, lazily articulating the kind of attitude to be found across the British press. No one is redeemable. The misdeeds of a person should be held against him until he dies.

This approach wastes talent. Just as Aitken was the right person to look into the reform of prisons, so Chris Langham should be encouraged to return to what he is good at – writing and performing about characters caught up in a muddle of ambition and moral compromise. Indeed, his experiences over the past two years – a horror and personal shame that few experience – might even contribute to the work that he has to offer.

Every bit as important as what happens to the individual is the effect of general moral superiority on the culture as a whole. When errant public figures become pariahs – to be mocked, humiliated and shunned – the rest of us are let off the hook. It may be comforting to believe that they reside in a separate, utterly repugnant moral universe, but clearly they do not. The very journalists who have expressed their horror at Langham’s behaviour will write unashamedly prurient articles about the most revolting crimes and members of the public will read them avidly. The dividing-line between outrage and excitement has never been greyer and less distinct.

Asked what he would he would do now, Chris Langham replied, “Look for a job”. He should be given one worthy of his talents and, for his sake and for ours, the miserable time that he spent as the nation’s favourite pervert should be consigned to the past.