youth crime officer

“To err is human, to forgive divine” wrote the poet Alexander Pope. The recent furore over Paris Brown, the youth crime commissioner forced to stand down over offensive tweets she had posted up to three years before her appointment, revealed little divinity in the press or those who lined up to criticise. There can be no condoning the comments themselves, of course, which were crass and unpleasant, but what does Paris’ case say about the increasingly problematic role that social media plays in breaking reputations?

Anyone who accepts a public role must accept with it a certain degree of scrutiny, but never have there been so many potential pitfalls as today, with many of our most personal and unguarded moments available through Facebook, posted on Twitter or even shared on YouTube. We may occasionally purge our profiles of the most outrageous, or just plain silly, comments and photos but once it has appeared you can never be entirely sure of who has seen it, captured it and may potentially share it in the future. Our generation is the first to have a very public documentary record of our adolescence; Paris Brown has experienced how a momentary misjudgement can attract huge attention and threaten your career. How many of our future leaders will be similarly threatened by ridicule or scandal? David Cameron has not been able to forget his Bullingdon Club hijinks when at Oxford, and the notorious photo of him in white tie and tails resurfaces from time to time to much embarrassment – but that is just one photo, compared to dozens, hundreds that many students today have on Facebook.

And let’s not assume that such errors are the preserve of the young. There is something about the combination of remoteness and immediacy of social media that has lured people of all ages into embarrassing situations; it is a space that can feel so personal and yet is inescapably public. Labour Party candidate Stuart MacLennan met a similar fate to Paris Brown, when earlier tweets were uncovered referring to the elderly as “coffin dodgers” and to locals in his Scottish town as “chavs”. In a very different episode, the wife of the incoming head of MI6 made personal details including home address, friends and holiday photos available on Facebook with very few restrictions – a potentially disastrous breach of security. We are all fallible, and with sites like these that fallibility can cost us an awful lot.

So, given that it has become ever easier for us to show our human side, perhaps collectively we may need to be readier to practice the divine art of forgiveness. We cannot assume that before anyone accepts a public role, whether Prime Minister or a youth police commissioner, that they have lived a life of perfect innocence and moderation. Nor, I would offer tentatively, is it always desirable. There is an appetite for politicians who understand life outside the Westminster bubble, who “speak human” rather than being fluent only in party lines; one of the attractive things for many looking to cast an anti-politics vote in the local elections was Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s man of the people image. Yet we often set the bar unrealistically high and also enjoy taking the moral highground when we find out that politicians, or prospective politicians, aren’t whiter than white. The Police and Crime Commissioner elections themselves highlighted the absurdity of these attitudes, with several candidates forced to step down over cautions and minor offences incurred decades previously – in one case a £5 fine from 1966 when the individual was 13 years old. Is it not possible that such an experience may have helped make them a more rounded person, not a hard-bitten criminal but someone who understands how people find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Ultimately, such judgements can only be made on a case by case basis – in the case of Paris Brown, a majority of young people voting on the British Youth Council website felt that she was right to resign. But let’s never forget that nobody is perfect, and in a social media age, increased transparency must go hand-in-hand with a bit of perspective.

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