One of the problems we are experiencing today in the era of 24 hour news, is that news stories break quicker, and without as much oversight, or even thought going into them.
Journalism is struggling, as news is more easily, and cheaply, found online. This has led to the amateur journalist, from full time self-employed or freelance, to the occasional blogger like myself, entering the field. This has led to the professional to try and compete with the amateur on their terms. This is a bad thing.
Of course, sometimes it is a necessary evil. In some states, where freedom of the press comes second to freedom of the government and powerful, bloggers and online amateur journalists are very useful holding despots to account. Syria and the Arab Spring come to mind, particularly in Egypt.
But the press have changed their customers. The customer is no longer the people, those in a quest for news reports of the highest quality and most in depth analysis. Nowadays, newspaper customers are those who buy the advertising space. And in order to demand the high revenue of advertising space, the paper has to sell well. In order to sell well, the paper has to write stories the readers want to read. Essentially ‘click bait’ on the written page.
So this brings me to the crux of my current angst. The newspapers currently name people for crimes prematurely. And in a major crime, the name of the accused is going to be in a far bigger font than any later retraction. Especially if the paper speculated on the individual itself.
In the UK, a ‘60s singer called Cliff Richard got accused in a modern ‘witch hunt’ post Saville. For non-UK readers, Saville refers to Jimmy Saville, who was an incredibly well known DJ and TV celebrity who became so powerful in the media that dozens of cases of sexual abuse and paedophilia. Of his 200+ victims, 80% were children and young people. He even boasted of necrophilia. But his charitable works were such (he raised some 40 million for charitable causes) that most of this was overlooked as rumour, jealousy and hatred.
So we have one innocent man, and one guilty man.
We should always, always, listen and believe a victim. This is the default position. In Richards case, we did this. In Saville’s case, we did not. The newspapers led the charge in Richards case, in Saville’s case, until the very widely held rumours were investigated by the police (after his death), Saville was treated like a saint. The BBC broke the story, not the written press.
Here’s the thing though. At this point, both Saville and Richards became victims. And you should always believe victims. They were victims because their names were out there. Of course, Saville was dead at this time, but he had family. The papers rapidly switched to a stance of guilty until proven innocent, which is different from the law of most democracies.
Now, it has been proven that Saville was an evil, evil man. To put it in context, Harvey Weinstein (who at the time of writing is still innocent in the eyes of the law until his trial), allegedly preyed on women who were seeking fame, some of which became powerful in their own right, and even these powerful women didn’t come forward until decades later (as far as I can see, he is only on trial for 2 offences). Saville preyed on vulnerable adults and children – around 214 of them (4 under the age of 10). Richards did nothing wrong, yet was held in suspicion of these offences in the minds of many because he was a Christian and in his 70’s, but had no relationships of any kind (with either males or females), which made him appear ‘weird’ in some peoples eyes. It is not illegal to be weird or I would be in jail for being autistic. Yet even now peoples enduring memory of Richards will be the police ‘storming’ his house in 2014, not of the Crown Prosecution Service saying there was no evidence to prosecute in 2016. For two years he lived under this weight of accusation, despite being innocent until proven guilty. (For parity – the BBC was heavily criticised for their part in the media storm. I mention this as they were instrumental in Saville’s conviction as mentioned. Nobody is perfect and mistakes in judgement happen).
We should protect the victims. And both parties are victims, and innocent, until the trial. The job of the Court is to decide who is telling the truth, not us. At that point, one party lose their ‘victim’ status. Not before.
The press and journalists, of either professional or amateur standing, need to remember this in their reporting. And I need to remember it in my daily life.
When people come up to me and complain about someone else, they deserve to be believed. But then the object of their complaint deserves to be believed as well. In my workplace, if my people accept my judgement, I can usually iron it out. And in most cases, it is purely perspective issues. Everyone is the hero of their own story, and most people don’t set out to be the ‘bad guy’.
For those that do, even death is not an escape. Saville’s ornate headstone was destroyed by his family and sent to landfill. His body was exhumed, it is thought it was cremated. His estate was divided up amongst his victims. His name was removed from street signs in his honour, and his honorary doctorates and freedoms were stripped, including a Royal Marine beret. Like the beret, his Knighthood and membership of Orders, such as a Papal Order and the Order of the British Empire expire on death, so there is no requirement for revocation. However, in most cases, Saville’s name was stripped from the records, and in the case of the Royal Marines, his name will never be uttered again. His ultimate legacy is obscurity.