Saturday, 14 September 2013

Innocence, guilt and 'trial by tabloid.'

An absolute cornerstone of the law is that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty. Accused, arrested, charged and put in the dock, you are still not guilty of the crime until a jury of your peers has heard and seen the evidence against you and the defence your solicitor has made, and decided that the evidence against you convinces them beyond reasonable doubt that you did the Bad Thing.

Anyone who has any problem with that is a buckethead. Mistakes happen; even when it seems pretty clear that A did something awful to B, it might not actually be true. B could be a liar, or mistaken. Yet there are still plenty of people who will insist that, even after being acquitted of doing a Bad Thing, A probably did do it, really. So being accused of a crime is a pretty horrible thing. The fact that being accused of a crime now seems to be a cue for the tabloids to declare open season on your life, your family, friends, career and personal habits is also a pretty horrible thing. Just ask Christopher Jeffries or Colin Stagg, convicted of murder by the press rather than in a court of law and forever portrayed as dangerous and evil when both were wholly innocent and the crimes they were accused of later proven to have been committed by other people.

So it probably doesn't seem all that unreasonable to call for anonymity to be granted to those accused - but not yet convicted - of rape. Michael LeVell has been acquitted of rape but only after the papers had a gleeful rampage through every aspect of his personal life; alcoholism, infidelity and, for all I know or care, the odd overdue library book. As he is innocent according to the law, it's considered a bit much that his reputation has been so comprehensively trashed and now, apparently, an awful lot of people are going to carry on thinking that there's no smoke without fire and anyway he's got weird eyes so he must have done something, etc.

However, there is a bit of a problem when it comes to conflating the fates of those  accused of murder and those accused of rape, and the problem is that, in a rape case, the victim is there, in court, and able to name the person - had already, often repeatedly, named the person who committed the crime. In a case of murder by a stranger, or by someone outside of the immediate family, there's often quite a lot of room for error on the part of the police. The murder victim, being dead, is unable to name the criminal or pick him/her out of a lineup. The victim of rape who chooses to press charges is alive, is a witness to the crime and much less likely to be mistaken. (Yes, sometimes a victim is mistaken as to the identity of the attacker; that is one of many reasons why a person accused of a crime has the right to trial by jury. Etc.)

So there is, actually, a very good case for preventing the media from naming - and subsequently mounting an attack on every aspect of the life of - an individual accused of murder. There's a good case to be made for restricting the tendency of the press to rummage round and snark about the personal life of those accused of a crime to the extent that the accused has been convicted of the crime by the media before a trial occurs. There's a case for reminding the tabloid press that newspapers are not the equivalent of a jury.

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