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October 17, 2013

Question: In the light of public reporting on noted people, has the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” become irrelevant?

Today’s question suggests the loss of innocence and possible criminality. My definition of justice definitely does not include trial by media. Although the principle is by no means universally respected, the presumption of innocence, with the burden of proof to be assumed by the accuser, in an impartial court of law, is a universal human right enshrined by constitutions, legal codes and declarations around the world.  

From a Bahá’í point of view, anyone who commits wrong, regardless of their station in life, has done dishonour. The standard should be the same for all.  But the media’s insatiable thirst for scandal means that all those who are elected or appointed to public office, be they judges, government ministers, senators, presidents, prime ministers, mayors, councillors, premiers or clerics, must show rectitude of conduct. Like it or not, the behaviour of those who are in the public eye, and assume the public trust, is going to be closely scrutinized.  For public figures, survivability these days must include character beyond reproach. 

But legal is not always moral and moral is not always legal. Another important factor comes into play besides strict legality and the necessary presumption of innocence. I refer to the company kept by those who hold high office—or no office at all. A French saying comes to mind. It goes something like this: “Tell me the company you keep and I will tell you who you are. ” Birds of  a feather hang together. “Like will unto like”. The point is perennial.

With some rare exceptions, most of us are influenced by the company we keep.  At one end of the spectrum, we can wonder with good reason why any public official would be keeping company with, request the assistance of, or would offer employment to those who have criminal records. Although guilt by association is by no means conclusive, one would have to wonder why anyone, especially a public official, would surround himself with those who have broken the law.  
-  Jack McLean

Printed in the The Ottawa Citizen October 17, 2013
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