Thursday, 21 July 2011

Not another trial by media?!

Yesterday in Stockport, a woman was suspended from her job at and subsequently arrested in connection with a number of suspicious deaths at Stepping Hill Hospital where she worked as a nurse.

There is scarce detail available about what happened, other than to say police have arrested a woman, they suspect that saline has been contaminated with insulin and inquiries are ongoing.

That didn’t stop the Daily Mail publishing an astonishing article today. Devoid of information and full of speculation, the journalist makes tenuous links to the case from out-of-context Facebook entries and quotes from ‘close friends’.

The web version of the article is littered with pictures lifted from the woman’s Facebook page and quotes her status updates saying, for example, “’Back to work in the morn’ followed by an unhappy face symbol,” but what does that tell us? What does this actually contribute to our understanding of the case? The only thing that I know now that I didn’t before is that she has a Facebook page, has been photographed whilst out socialising and sometimes feels weary and less-than-enthusiastic about going to work. None of these things are particularly noteworthy and could probably be said about millions of other people. However, the way the article has been constructed is particularly unpleasant.

The article includes 14 out-of-context quotes from her Facebook page dating back to October 2010 painting her as a “party girl” and attempts to draw sinister links between dates linked to the case – such as Friday 15th July, the day after the police were called in to investigate the deaths at the hospital, and her totally ambiguous Facebook status, “this is what it’s all about.”

The whole article seems to imply that she is somehow morally questionable because she enjoys going out and getting drunk with friends. Their use of the term “party girl” is imbued with suggestive undertones. Of all the photos they could have chosen of her, they’ve picked ones of her swigging from wine bottles and pouting, some might say suggestively, at the camera. The journalist ‘researching’ the piece dug back several months into her Facebook past to find sufficiently titillating status updates talking about how she intended to go out drinking. They also state – from what I can tell, completely unfoundedly – that she was using what they euphemistically refer to as her “frantic social life” as a way to cope with “the stress of work.” From what I’ve read in the article, it is a leap of logic to link the two things and is no truer than it might be of anyone who chooses to go out on their evenings off and let their hair down.

The journalist writing the article also includes quotes from personal and family friends in the article and while I do not doubt the veracity of these, the phraseology of these is telling of the way the questions must have been phrased. I thought it was customary only to refer to people in the past tense if they are dead or proven to be substantially different to how they were previously regarded. In the article, the husband of her close friend says of the woman’s relationship with his wife, “they were as close as they come,” and an unnamed friend says “she was just a lovely, happy person” (emphasis mine). 

Why are they referring to her in the past tense? Particularly since the editorial part of the article is written in the present tense. If I were to read those comments about myself, I would be certain that I had lost the good opinion of people I held dear.

And to what end? So far there is nothing to suggest that she is guilty other than the fact she’s been arrested and suspended. Neither of these things would stand up in a court of law as evidence of wrongdoing. Suspension is a neutral act carried out to ensure an investigation can be carried out without prejudice. Arrest is necessary in order to conduct the kind of questioning needed to establish what this woman knows. To insinuate that either of these things are a clear indications of guilt is damaging and wrong.

What disturbs me most about this article in particular and the speculation around this arrest in general is the fact the media – and particularly the tabloid press – are strongly leading the public into condemning this woman on the basis of innuendo and speculation about her personal life. There is little if any concrete information about the case currently available, not even exactly how the saline was contaminated and what her part in it might have been, if any. Yet the front page of the Daily Mail today carried a picture of her next to a typeface about as large as it’s possible to get on a tabloid sheet saying:


So if it turns out, following investigations, that she had nothing to do with this at all, she will always be tainted with that insinuation. If she is later charged in connection with these deaths, how can she get a fair trial when her character has been called into question for behaviour in her personal life that, were it not for the incidental link to her being questioned in connection with this investigation, would be seen as nothing out of the ordinary?

While much of the attention on press conduct brought about by the current scrutiny of News International focuses on the illegal accessing of voicemail and 'blagging' personal information, this is not the only way in which journalists the news media – and particularly the tabloids – have a history of ruining reputations based on scant or spurious evidence of what you might call ‘ordinary’ people.

Another clear case of trial by media involved the speculation published about the landlord of Jo Yeates, murdered in Bristol last winter, where incidental details about his apparently eccentric lifestyle were exposed in the press as supposed pointers to his guilt. When he was later released by the police without charge, the papers dropped their pursuit of him but nothing could undo the damage done by hauling his personal information out into the public eye for needless scrutiny. They took a retired teacher who kept himself to himself and painted him as some kind of creepy, reclusive loner. What benefit did that have in pursuing the investigation? None whatsoever. At what cost to him personally? Who can tell?

I think there is a strong argument for the sake of fairness in the judicial process that the identities of suspects in criminal investigations should be withheld from the media until such time as their trial has been commenced. If the media can’t be relied upon to behave responsibly, this information should be kept from them. It is not in the public interest [even if many members of the public may be interested] and has effects of publicly airing personal details of otherwise innocent people’s lives for titillation and potentially prejudicing juries in the trial of those who are found to have a case to answer.

I don’t believe that the judicial process or people’s reputations should be sacrificed in order to provide lurid entertainment and secure circulation. I can’t be the only one.

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