A few more than twelve good men
by Sophie McKay
Today’s newspapers raise a recurring issue with the media and its relationship to the political and legal spheres. These worlds need media coverage and deserve scrutiny. But, rather than merely reporting and considering events, we could argue that the media is now impinging too heavily on the sphere it comments on: manipulating and hyping coverage. The News of the World is a case in point, recent accusations pointing to phone tapping and rogue journalism.
Yesterday, Avon and Somerset Police banned ITN News from attending their press conference, as a reaction to a report by the news channel the previous night that was “unfair” to the investigation. The news report in question featured an interview with a former murder squad detective who suggested that the case was struggling due to basic inquiries being poorly carried out. ITN argue that this is a report that was simply critical. Whether an overly critical report is damaging remains to be seen but this is not the first time media approaches to criminal investigations have been questioned.
The changing nature of news coverage: rolling 24/7 news, the internet and social networks, has massively altered the way police investigation is covered. In today’s Times, Camilla Cavendish examines the impact that this has had, considering a number of high profile cases where a media furore has threatened fair outcomes. Suspects in the Madeleine McCann case, the Ipswich murders and the current Joanna Yeates case have received enormous media examination.
The capacity of the internet means that we can all be the “inexpert expert”, with just about anyone able to blog or tweet opinion and gather enormous amounts of speculative information in minutes. Although information growth can be beneficial, the legal ramifications of this in criminal investigation are troubling. Had any of these suspects been brought to trial the jury’s opinion would be enormously coloured by the breadth of information and speculation surrounding those involved. Similarly, the case against Julian Assange has thrown up the other side of the coin. Dating profiles, photographs and personal information about the women involved have been dredged up online, adding fuel to what are (on the whole) uninformed opinions on the case in question. This sort of information exacerbates personal and social prejudices which, when combined with intense public feeling, can seriously damage the fairness of a legal trial. Barry George’s case exemplifies this well, the jury convicting him of murdering Jill Dando on scant forensic evidence amid enormous public speculation, then later acquitting him when the media storm had calmed.
It would be incredibly undesirable and counter-productive to significantly censor reporting of criminal investigation, and realistically unachievable. But a trial needs to take place in a courtroom, not on the pages of national newspapers. These continuing stories indicate we need to think hard about the nature of the media as a commentator and a creative force.