In Defense of the UK's Four Masturbating Judges

Just because they watched a bit of porn on a work computer doesn't mean they're the monsters the British media is making them out to be.

by Oscar Rickett
19 March 2015, 5:21pm

The Royal Courts of Justice, where some judges work

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Judges: aging white guys in horsehair wigs brushing the crumbs of a long lunch off their robes. Bourgeois overseers sitting in large, decaying leather chairs, project managing the criminal justice system and deciding whether or not to renew a B1 liquor license.

Nothing about the stereotype screams sex appeal. Nothing about the stereotype screams, "These people are worth defending." In fact, it screams, "Out of touch." It suggests that these men (and they are usually men) are more interested in dozing their way to an easy paycheck than paying attention to what's happening in the courtroom in front of them.

This week, three judges were sacked—and a fourth resigned—after they were found to have watched porn on their work computers. The Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice called this conduct "wholly unacceptable" and pronounced the watching of porn an "inexcusable misuse" of official IT accounts, thereby upholding the sanctity of all official IT accounts. The porn was not illegal and it wasn't revealed whether it had been watched during cases the judges were sitting on.

I'm not going to pretend that the image of a masturbating judge is an uplifting one. No one wants to picture a middle-aged man struggling with his tackle while, in front of him, grainy images flicker on his mid-level Toshiba. But what harm have these men really done? What they did, they did in the privacy of their own offices. It's not as if they fired up PornHub in the middle of the open plan while stricken assistants ran for cover.

Of course, responses to the viewing habits of the judges have been overwhelmingly negative. They've been sacked and they've been condemned. "These representatives of our notoriously stuck-in-the-past judiciary had probably just discovered the internet," ran a Guardian comment piece, which goes on to take this assumption and link it to the failure of judges to "process diversity" and "overcome their own bigotry." These men may have been bad at their jobs and they may be out-of-touch with society, but watching porn does not prove this.

The Liberal Democrat John Hemming was one of a number of politicians trying to score points when he said that he was concerned about a "lack of transparency" in the judiciary. The Mail pointedly brought up that "one of the four judges jailed a teacher for downloading child pornography and another sentenced a Peeping Tom for using a mobile phone to film women in swimming pool changing rooms." None of the fired judges watched child pornography. None of them filmed women at swimming pools.

This rush to condemn is presented as concern for the public. Judges play an important role in society, so it's important that they are not cut off from this society and it's important that they are dedicated and hardworking. This is the concern that is presented to us, but in fact the desire to publicly shame these men is based on an unthinking acceptance of the ongoing corporatization of our society and the zealous championing of a new kind of puritanism.

Our society's fear of sex means that there is no thought that watching porn might be a release, something other than a grubby and outrageous betrayal of the good citizens of this country. I know a highly respected academic who, from time to time, picks up boys on Grindr and has them come to his office. He still does his work, he just allows for some fun as well. This way of working, though, is now seen as a dirty, scandalous, and unprofessional fuck-you to a corporate world in which we're all expected to be good little worker bees, churning out our data as efficiently as possible in our work pods, never doing anything that isn't in the company interest. As units of productivity, the idea that we might not want to completely subsume our desires is dangerously human, which also makes it dangerously unmanageable.

Of course, it would obviously be terrible if a judge gave bad counsel because he'd been cranking one out in his back room rather than studying the particulars of his latest case—but again, there is no proof, or even suggestion, that this is what happened.

I spoke to a vastly experienced judge who told me that our adversarial legal system means that judges—particularly part-time ones like the ones who have been fired—often have far too much time on their hands. Mornings, afternoons, and even days are freed up by the difficulty of bringing together all the relevant parties for a case, and by the fact that judges are contracted to serve a certain number of days (if the case they are working on finishes quickly they are still obliged to serve those days). Judges used to listen to the radio. Then a Ministry of Justice edict went out saying that they weren't allowed to do that. Books and newspapers are too obviously not work, but computers contain an array of easily hidden distractions, from the socially acceptable (Facebook) to the morally outrageous (porn).

But while it's easy to flick from tab to tab in order to hide what you're really watching, it is the advent of computers that has made the enforcement of puritanism truly possible. Now, what we do at work can be surgically monitored. Our browsing histories and hard drives can be ransacked. The judges were naïve to think that they weren't under surveillance. They were naïve to think that they would be allowed to get away with doing anything other than soullessly plodding through their day. These men are not the most hapless of all the figures drowned in the rising tide of corporatization, but they have been drowned by it nonetheless.

To me, this drowning contains more sadness than outrage. One of the judges, Warren Grant, said he had been "suffering from severe and undiagnosed depression." The anesthetizing distraction of porn was part of this story. Not the story of a deviant betraying the noble cause of public service, but of a man in trouble.

Andrew Maw, the Recorder who resigned before he could be fired, was 65. He spent his life serving the law, but now he's just a man, a grubby little man who watched porn on a publicly monitored computer. These men aren't folk heroes, but the people rushing to condemn them are the proponents of a corporate puritanism that would take our humanity and crush it with shame and condemnation.

Follow Oscar on Twitter.