Judge and jury?

6 November 2002 – What need of a police force? What need of a judicial system? The tabloid press seems to be doing the job very well. Rather better, in fact, if the collapse of the Burrell case is any criterion. When it comes to the ruination of public figures, with John Leslie and Angus Deayton as the latest examples, the tabloids could argue that they are far more efficient; that they are the true arbiters of guilt and meters-out of justice in the name of the public. The News of the World can even boast that it has brought a gang of alleged kidnap plotters to justice, which must have caused a few red faces at Scotland Yard.

Whether or not this is a healthy state of affairs is open to question. It is true that the press has a valuable and historic role in the disclosure of scandal; in turning over stones that the Establishment would rather remained unturned. Responsible investigative journalism is an honourable trade when devoted to the exposure of matters in the genuine public interest. And all credit (for once) to the News of the World.

Yet all too often these exposés have nothing to do with the public interest, but merely pander to the interest of the public in seeing celebrities, themselves created by the media, brought low. The British press is unique in its fascination with the sexual peccadilloes of the rich and famous; an obsession which probably says as much about the psychology of its readers as it does about those who produce the titillating rubbish. Editors and leading journalists, of course, are notably immune from such intrusion.

Perhaps this does not matter too much, except in terms of good taste. The courts have begun establishing under the Human Rights Act that those who live by the media must expect to be slaughtered by it if they behave unwisely. And few would quarrel with such rulings.

There are, however, more disturbing aspects of press behaviour. One is the importation of the American custom of convicting a suspected criminal before trial. The most notable recent examples have been the case of Barry George, convicted on slender evidence of the Jill Dando murder, and that of the couple awaiting trial for the murder of the Soham schoolgirls. It is hard to imagine a jury that was not in the first case, and will not be in the second, influenced by the saturation pre-trial coverage.

Journalists of a certain age will remember something called the sub judice rule, which used to prevent publication of the details of a case once a suspect had been arrested. That seems to have fallen into abeyance, and there is a lurking suspicion that the authorities themselves are leaking details of unproven allegations in order to increase the odds of an ultimate conviction. It would be too much to expect newspapers to go into a state of self-denial and ignore such juicy tit-bits; the remedy lies with those who are doing the leaking.

Press freedom is important, but justice, the presumption of innocence and a fair trial, are even more so. Journalists would do well to remember an ancient truism: people lie, which is why facts should be checked before publication. Just because a source wears a uniform does not guarantee the truth of what he or she is saying – just ask Prince Charles. This is especially true if such a source insists on anonymity – which they generally do.

The supine acceptance of official leaks in criminal cases is becoming a worrying trend. It is, in effect, turning the media into judge and jury. And that, surely, is not its role in a democratic society.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 75)

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