Friday, 23 November 2007

Who calls the shots - the Courts or the Media?

It has been sad reading about Meredith Kercher’s death. She was a British exchange student in Italy who was killed in her bedroom after (it is suspected) being sexually assaulted. As with most murder cases, the police are still trying to piece together the jigsaw. Who killed Meredith Kercher? What actually happened the night she died?

The story of Meredith Kercher is one that draws pathos. Anyone with a heart will be moved by the tragedy that befell a bright, pretty 21-year-old who had her life ahead of her. And I guess that’s why the British media has snapped it up and run the story for weeks. We’ve heard/read statements from her family in which they described Meredith as a person who touched the lives of everyone she met with her infectious, upbeat personality, smile and sense of humour.
Eulogies also poured in from Leeds University, where Meredith was studying. In the following weeks we saw/watched a smiling, bubbly Meredith on the pages of our newspapers/TV screens.

At the heart of it all a young student has been killed and her killer(s) might still be walking free. It is upsetting. Therefore the police are working hard to unearth events and perpetrator(s) that led to her death. The media too, through active coverage, nurture public awareness. This in turn makes it hard for the police to relent in their efforts. Active coverage keeps them on their toes.

But the media also helps fill in the gaps for their audience. Nibbling questions like what happened? Who did it? How did it happen? Will be tackled by the media.
A bare story without accompanying details is like an incomplete painting. No one would want to buy a painting half completed. That’s why journalists need to paint a vivid picture which will tempt the reader to buy the paper/watch the news etc. For a story to be newsworthy it has to be out-of-the-ordinary. And it is the media’s job to show the story has a striking edge, or in more colloquial terms, the X-factor. And if audiences are to patronise a certain medium, the medium must bring the story to life. It must go beyond the ordinary. But do the media overstep the boundary in trying to create a palatial story? Does coverage sometimes border on the fictitious?

The coverage of Meredith Kercher’s death started off on a very skeletal, rudimentary basis. We were told a British student was murdered in Italy. We knew suspects were being questioned. But gradually the stark picture was filled out with tints of colour. Headlines mutated from: Did two men kill Meredith? to Meredith ‘killed by two men’ after sex, and then Meredith killed after refusing orgy. The Daily Telegraph even recreated Meredith’s bedroom by copying a police crime photograph.

And details kept dribbling. A 20 year-old American, her 24-year-old boyfriend and a 37-year-old Congolese ‘legal immigrant’ were being held as key suspects. It emerges Meredith refused to participate in a sex game so one of the men raped her and the other slit her throat. The American confesses to having a hand in her death. A gruesome portrayal . However it is worth pointing out, there are reporting restrictions the media ought to follow.

Under the law if an organisation publishes material which creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice to active proceedings it holds the court in contempt and this is punishable (Contempt of Court Act, 1981). Put differently suspects must not be exposed to the glare of publicity. Once an arrest warrant has been issued; an arrest made; a suspect is summoned or charged verbally, organisations must not publish anything that will prejudice their case in court. The suspect should not be linked to the alleged crime. Suggestions should not be made he/she is guilty. Neither should any background information be given, descriptions or photographs published. Regardless of their crimes suspects are entitled to a fair trial.

Sometimes, as in this case, the media sidestep the law. On occasion people refer to it as trial by media. Before standing being tried by the courts, the suspect is tried by the media. Details of his/her private life are excavated. Prejudicial reporting becomes inevitable. That seems to be the case with Peter Tobin, who is accused of murdering two school girls. Under the law his previous convictions are not supposed to be reported because they will create a substantial risk of prejudice. But this doesn’t seem to matter to the papers. Reading the papers you get the feeling it has to be him.

But recently we’ve seen cases where previous evidence in a trial is quashed and retrial ordered. For instance, Barry George who is to be tried a second time for the murder of TV presenter Jill Dando after the Court of Appeal ruled key evidence was doubtful.

On the whole I believe the media are indispensable to every society. They inform us, educate us, entertain us and are a window to the world we cannot see. But I guess it boils down to ethical decisions made by individual media organisations. If ethical considerations play strongly in their coverage, the story will be more balanced. The BBC for instance, has a reputation for being impartial. The Guardian too tries to avoid bias.

The audience have a right to know, but the media need to be careful they are not giving the dog a bad name so they can hang it.


  1. Your have been careful to include all the various players involved, the press, the accused, and the public's right to be informed.
    Sensationalism, is one of the cardinal principles of news writing. Yes, ethics should not be compromised, but if no serious harm is done, sometimes, lessening the hurdle of ethics might be necessary for good reporting.
    Afterall, even companies like the BBC (which you cited as an example of ethical news reporting), are very much proponents of a certain viewpoint. Is that in itself ethical?

  2. It's the age-old story of what should be reported and what is reported. The solution is not white or black, it's gray and even with these reporting restrictions there are so many ways media organizations can tinker with the law for their benefit. Honestly, I see the problem in reporting a story like this for weeks and weeks when people get murdered and killed and kidnapped every day. It says a lot not that the media decided to tell her story in graphic detail but that the media decided to tell her story at all.