You will have noticed an awful lot of media coverage recently about the, er, media. It?s one of the media?s favourite topics. The recent coverage has been of attempts to tighten up the laws that might restrict invasion of privacy (or freedom of the press, depending on how you look at it). It has been said that legal devices such as super-injunctions unfairly protect the wealthy and the famous, and why should such folk be able to buy a privilege that shields them in a way that is not available to the great unwashed?
The answer to that question, of course, is to make privacy and libel actions available under Legal Aid, so that everybody ? rich or poor ? can enjoy the same degree of protection. But that?s not a position that would find favour with the media, of course.
Yet we all know that much of the misery caused by certain types of media all too often affects those who are unable to fight back, for one reason or another. Do you remember that hapless pigeon shooter whose photograph was splashed across the national media as he was led, handcuffed, out of a field by armed police? He was utterly innocent, yet had to suffer being portrayed as a ?masked gunman? who had allegedly threatened a bunch of crop circle tourists.
Or what about the alleged shooting of two hen harriers at Sandringham in 2008? It emerged that the sole witness statement was filed by a nature reserve groundsman who was hundreds of metres away at the time, at dusk, and who most probably saw two pinkfoot geese being lawfully shot. Yet even ostensibly serious papers such as The Guardian were happy to name the three people who were interviewed by police. The majority of the media never bothered to correct or balance the prejudicial initial news coverage when the investigation was closed.
Guilty until proven innocent
Even today, the Sandringham allegation is being trotted out as though it was a matter of solid, uncontested fact. A few weeks ago, it was mentioned in that manner in The Times by a freelance journalist named Simon Barnes. In my opinion, Mr Barnes ? who also writes for the RSPB?s membership magazine ? often parrots the RSPB?s official PR line on various issues. When I contacted The Times, it responded as follows: The police brought no charges over the alleged shooting of two hen harriers at Sandringham because of insuffi cient evidence. That does not mean that it did not happen. The allegation that it did still stands. You supply no evidence to refute the allegation, merely your ?understanding? that it did not happen. Simon Barnes is as entitled to believe that it did happen as you are to believe that it didn?t.
I wrote back: Let us suppose that a person said that he had seen, at a distance of half a mile, 40 minutes after sunset, a certain Mr A killing two people. The police launch a massive forensic investigation at dawn and discover… nothing. No evidence to support the single witness statement. There are no bodies, no DNA, no physical evidence whatsoever that any crime had been committed. By contrast, Mr A has a very credible account of what he was doing at that precise time and how this innocent activity might well seem, from a distance, to match the observation made by the witness. Naturally, the Crown Prosecution Service decides there is no case to answer. However, a rich, powerful pressure group decides to hype up the case because it suits its own wider agenda, and the media duly have a field day. Few even bother to report the Crown Prosecution Service decision when it comes.
Would The Times still feel justified in publishing that Mr A did, in fact, kill two people? Apparently, the answer is ?yes?, because the complete lack of evidence ?does not mean it did not happen.? I think you have forgotten that, in this country, people are innocent until proven guilty.
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