Archive for the ‘The Sun’ tag

What’s to stop the press ‘monstering’ the next Jo Yeates suspect?

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This post was first published on the INFORRM blog on Friday 7th January

Christopher Jefferies, arrested last week and questioned about the murder of Bristol landscape architect Jo Yeates, expects to be cleared of any involvement in her murder within days, it has been reported. The police can find no evidence or motive connecting him to her murder.

Yet only a week ago, as soon as he was arrested, Jefferies was presumed guilty by many media outlets. ‘Weird, posh, lewd, creepy’, The Sun called him, before quoting various unnamed sources who made him out to be just the type who might commit murder.  “You didn’t want him to come near you” one was quoted as saying, “He was very unkempt and had dirty fingernails. He was weird”. Another quoted unnamed source said that “He was fascinated by making lewd sexual remarks. It was really disturbing.”

Despite the lack of evidence the press sought to use any facts known about Jefferies as proof of his guilt. An incriminating Mirror headline read ‘Chris Jefferies’ “favourite” poem was about killing wife’. Quite a leap given the paper was referring to the Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, not such a surprising choice of poem for an ex-English teacher. It was a little like saying a historian who writes about Hitler must be a Nazi. In The Times a headline read, ‘Strange Mr Jefferies knew boyfriend was away’, implying that this information implicated him in the murder. This despite the fact that Yeates had reportedly announced on her Facebook profile that she would be alone that weekend.

But what is to stop the press acting in the same way – or worse – towards the next suspect in the Yeates case? Let’s not forget that Jefferies is hardly the first to have been presented in this way. Robert Murat’s life will never be the same after the press went for him after the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. Previous to Murat there was Tom Stephens (falsely suspected of being involved in the Ipswich murders), and there have been others – not necessarily accused of murder – whose lives have been blighted by false accusations (such as the Tamil hunger striker in Parliament Square accused by The Sun and The Daily Mail of secretly breaking his fast).

The law intended to prevent, or at least dampen, this sort of trial by media – the Contempt of Court Act 1981 – is no longer effective. This is partly due to its limited use since 1981, but mainly to developments in technology and publishing; such that the law is now extremely difficult to police and almost impossible to prosecute.

It is certainly clear the tabloids now set little store by the Act. Kelvin McKenzie, columnist and ex-editor of The Sun, speaking on Radio 4’s The Media Show this week, said Contempt of Court is an ‘inconsequential piece of law now… and if it wasn’t inconsequential before, the online world makes it ridiculous’. ‘Allow newspapers to continue with their excess’, McKenzie continued, ‘because excess is part of free speech’ (The Media Show, 5-1-11).

If the Contempt of Court Act will not dampen this sort of reporting will media culture? Will those within the press look at the treatment of Jefferies, Murat, Stephens and others and be more reticent before assuming the next person’s guilt? There is no doubting the material effect the reporting can have on people’s lives. Robert Murat said his ‘life will be scarred forever’ by the coverage. The Tamil hunger striker was ostracised by his community and said he considered suicide.

But it is unlikely our media culture will prevent this. Indeed some of the journalists reporting on Christopher Jefferies previously reported on the McCanns and Robert Murat, so they must have been well aware of the dangers of jumping to ill-founded conclusions and the damage it can do (notably Gary O’Shea, The Sun and Ryan Parry, The Mirror).

Not only is our media culture unlikely to prevent this, there is a good chance it could get worse. Some of those publishing online and on social networks certainly did not feel constrained even by the ghost of the Contempt Act, accepting the newspapers’ headlines and assuming Jefferies’ guilt. The sense of a growing consensus of someone’s guilt cannot but help encourage mainstream media to go further – buoyed by the public’s apparent acceptance.

Perhaps self-regulation of the press could slow or reverse this? Since the law is such a blunt instrument for dealing with the media it is, in general, much better that the press deal – and are seen to be dealing – with things themselves.

Unfortunately, the way self-regulation is currently structured, this is unlikely to happen. The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) does work behind the scenes when there are media feeding frenzies (such as contacting the local police and offering its services). But, as we saw in the case of the McCanns and Robert Murat, its effect is often very limited. Moreover, its powers are highly constrained. It is loath to intervene while a case is live, and after the event, the most redress it can offer is the publication of a correction or apology (which does not have legal backing).

What about libel law? As currently constituted libel law is complex, anachronistic, time consuming and eye-wateringly expensive. It has been used by powerful organisations and individuals as a tool to shut down debate about science and to prevent publication of reports of significant public interest by NGOs. It is in need of reform and, going by what Nick Clegg said at the Institute of Government this week, it will be.

Yet it is also one of the only means people like Christopher Jefferies have of seeking  some form of redress after being ‘monstered’. Robert Murat pursued his case in the court, on the basis of a  Conditional Fee Agreement, and received a settlement of £600,000.

Plus, ‘will we get sued?’ is one of the few things the press still worry about before they publish. Remove this risk and there is very little to stop them publishing more of these kind of stories.

Reform of libel law is necessary and overdue. But, in the process of reform we need to make sure that people like Jefferies, Murat and others do not lose any form of redress against monstering by the press.

Written by Martin Moore

January 11th, 2011 at 10:04 am

Unanswered questions about The Sun’s ‘baby-father’ story

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On 13th February, The Sun broke the original story about 13-year-old ‘baby-father’ Alfie. This week, it revealed that the story was almost entirely wrong (though you wouldn’t have known that from the coverage).

The most astonishing aspect of the story was not only that Alfie was young, but that Alfie also looked incredibly young. Rather than a 13-year-old, Alfie looked – from the published photographs and video – no more than 10.

The Sun held the exclusive rights to the original story – which included video access to Alfie, his 15-year-old girlfriend and their new baby in hospital (video still available to view, 21-5-09, here)

The commercial impact of the story was immediate. So popular was the story and video (‘video that stunned world’ the site said) that, combined with the Sun’s coverage of Jade Goody, it helped make the most popular UK newspaper website in February (rising from 5th to 1st position according to Media Guardian).

Nor was the impact simply commercial. For politicians, particularly opposition politicians, the story showed that Britain really was ‘broken’. David Cameron, writing in The Sun, said ‘I could barely believe my eyes yesterday morning when I saw the pictures of baby-faced Alfie Patten and his own baby girl’, and he applauded The Sun ‘for bringing this to public attention’. Turns out he should have suspended his disbelief.

This week The Sun returned to the story – and not apologetically. It splashed the news that the 13-year-old was not the real father across its front page on Tuesday and continued it on pages 4-5. It named the actual father (based on DNA this time) – then 14, now 15, and talked about the sex life of the 15-year-old mother. It referred to the liberalism of the girl’s mother (reporting that she let her daughter take boys upstairs to her bedroom) and acknowledged that the girl at the centre of the story was being bullied.

So the story has come full circle. We find the actual story is arguably much less newsworthy (’14-year-old boy – who looks 14 – makes 15-year-old girl pregnant’) and would probably not have boosted audiences to The Sun website or elicited the same political laments about our moral malaise.

But a number of questions remain unanswered about The Sun’s baby-father story:

How did The Sun find the story in the first place? Was it sold to them? If so, did the paper make a deal, and if so, has it paid for the story? (according to Max Clifford, on the Today Programme, and according to Stephen Brook on, it hasn’t).

How did The Sun try to check the boy’s story? Did it base a story of such commercial significance – and such personal significance to those involved – on the claims of a 13-year-old boy (or what he told his parents)? Did it speak to other children who knew the girl and boy (that the papers have since spoken to) or did it do its own DNA test, before running with the story across its paper and website?

Should The Sun have reported the story in the first place? Given issues surrounding reporting of children (as spelt out, for example, in Clause 6 of the Editorial Code of Conduct), privacy concerns, and the fact it was not sure the boy was the real father.

Is The Sun setting up a trust for the new baby (as reported in the Media Guardian this week but not commented on by the paper)? Is this meant as an apology for the original story?

Written by Martin Moore

May 21st, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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The Sun apologises… and next summer to be a scorcher

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A very rare thing – an apology from The Sun (credit to Regret the Error for finding it) to the former England football manager:

A big apology for Mr Eriksson:
THE Sun may have inadvertantly suggested that former England manager Sven Goran Eriksson was a prize twerp in selecting Theo Walcott for the 2006 World Cup squad.”

It remains to be seen whether next summer will indeed be a scorcher.

Written by Martin Moore

September 12th, 2008 at 8:04 am

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How mainstream media got it wrong over David Davis' resignation

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Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University and one of the most astute commentators on the direction of journalism today, called the blogosphere – news’ ‘Court of Appeal’ (link here). By this he meant that a news story can have a second – often larger – life if bloggers pick it up, chew it over, and generally pay more attention to it than mainstream media did the first time around.

I’d like to add to Rosen’s analogy and suggest that as well as gaining a second life from the public ‘Court of Appeal’, that court can also overturn mainstream media’s original judgment.

This is certainly what’s happened with David Davis’ resignation. After Davis made his surprise announcement that he was resigning his Parliamentary seat over the issue of 42 days detention, mainstream media leapt immediately over the principles for which he resigned and focused entirely on the political implications for Brown and Cameron. ‘Tory shock turns to anger over one man’s 42-day crusade’, said The Guardian. The Times said Davis was on a ‘disastrous ego trip’. The Sun called him ‘a quitter’.

Mainstream media’s attitude was best captured by the rush to judgment of the BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, who in a piece to camera and in his blog, talked about Davis’ actions being a ‘nightmare for the Conservative party’ and a gift to Brown.

But then a funny thing happened. Something that couldn’t have happened a couple of years ago. The public responded. People told Robinson he’d got it wrong. And not just a couple of renegade Conservative supporters either. There were 275 comments beneath Robinson’s initial report, 175 on his follow-up, and 555 (to date) below his defense. And the same was true elsewhere on the BBC, and in response to the pieces in the press. A torrent of people reacting against the knee-jerk cynicism of mainstream media and its unwillingness to accept that any politician could do something simply because s/he believed in it.

“This is about a man of principle fighting for what he believes in” SimonofOxford wrote beneath Nick Robinson’s blog, “David Davis deserves plaudits for taking a stand”. “If only all MPs had the guts to stand by their principles we would have a much better and more honest parliament”, commented mikepko.

Climbsforfun reflected the views of many commenters when s/he said “I am pleased to see that I am not alone in being astonished at your [Robinson's], and the media in general’s reaction to this. It seems to fly in the face of how the public feel”.

“Perhaps this is the first sign of public revolt against the mass media”, Vastiriner wrote. “People are so fed up of being spun (or lied) to that they literally do not believe what the mass media’s interpretation any more”.

The effect of this public revolt against cynicism is already apparent. Mainstream media are starting to take Davis’ stand seriously, journalists are pushing Gordon Brown to engage Davis in debate (or at least James Landale from Newsnight is) – even The Sun has become supportive (see Fergus Shanahan). It’s difficult to imagine that this will augur a wider sea change in the media’s attitude to politics, but it might make journalists pause the next time a politician does something for the sake of principle.

Mind you, Nick Robinson remains unrepentant – see his 10 reasons why this will be bad for the Tories. Ironic – and perhaps fitting – that his first should be media related, ’1. It will pit the Tories against the paper whose support they most want to win – The Sun’.

Written by Martin Moore

June 18th, 2008 at 9:55 am

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