Freedom or responsibility?

27 June 2001 – Somewhere in Britain, sometime soon, a perfectly innocent 18-year-old boy is going to move into a new flat or a new job and be viciously assaulted; perhaps killed. This may not be the intent of the newspapers who have whipped up a campaign of public hate against the killers of James Bulger, but it will be the inevitable consequence. No doubt there will be a little editorial hand-wringing when it happens; probably not much – witness the lack of contrition at the News of the World over its misfiring anti-paedophile campaign.

No one suggests that the media should be nice to Thompson and Venables. Niceness is not required. The pair committed a heinous act, albeit that they were ten years old at the time – an age at which in most countries they would not have faced a criminal court, let alone have their identities disclosed. But there has to be a happy medium between tender forgiveness and the incitement of a lynch mob. The pair have served the custodial part of their sentence. The toughest part: the ordeal of creating a new life in a strange world, surrounded by latent hatred and haunted by memories of the past, lies ahead. It may not be the duty of the media to make that life any easier. It is surely not their job, in a so-called civilised society, to make it impossible.

Murderers who have served life sentences are released from prison every day. The media neither notices nor cares. Some 70 children who have killed are now said to be eligible for parole, and the media will not chase them because it cannot – their identities have never been disclosed. It might have been better if the trial judge had accorded the same privilege to Thompson and Venables, but it is too late to worry about that now. Their names known, their 10-year-old faces plastered across the front pages, they have become quarry to be hunted down. It is an odd phenomenon in a nation on the verge of banning fox-hunting.

Is this what journalism is, or should be, about in Britain 2001? Are we to be forever condemned to a press which panders to the basest instincts of society? Does it, indeed, create and foster those very instincts in the name of bigger circulation, greater profit? Those newspapers responsible – and by no means all are guilty – will no doubt claim that they do no more than reflect public demand. If that is so, shame on us all. If it is not, shame on them.

Once again we are hearing calls for a Privacy Bill, and more talk of the press “drinking in the last-chance saloon.” Thus far there is no sign of such a move: the government appears reluctant to include newspapers in the media regulation proposals of its forthcoming Communications Bill. Perhaps Mr Blair and his colleagues should think again in the light of the Bulger affair. Any move for meaningful reform of the Press Complaints Commission will no doubt be opposed by powerful newspaper proprietors as an assault on press freedom. But it is time they remembered that freedom is one thing, and responsibility another.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 45)

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