Power, responsibility and covering court cases

Dilemma 1: Your paper is covering a court case involving a brothel, and a customer due to give evidence as part of the prosecution case asks – through the CPS – if you can avoid naming him, because he hasn’t told his wife about his day in the witness stand.

Dilemma 2: A defendant who was cleared of a sex assault on a girl asks for all stories about the case to be removed from your website.

Dilemma 3: Should the law be changed to ban the identification of anyone arrested for a sex offence until they are charged?

Ok, so the last one doesn’t require a immediate editorial decision, although it’s as much a fascinating debating point as the others.

For obvious legal reasons, I won’t say too much more about the first dilemma. But it was a new and interesting twist on the age-old issue of how much information we should give about victims and witnesses.

I have long been uncomfortable about our naming of victims of domestic violence, and over the years have had many a difficult conversation with someone who has felt that they have been as much on trial as the defendant after becoming caught up in court case coverage.

The second dilemma is one that provoked a fair bit of debate among those responsible for websites run by our company earlier this week.

In the end, there was a solid consensus in favour of removing the stories.

I was glad there was.

It is easy sometimes to become embattled about what we could argue are lofty principles of press freedom and censorship, to talk about being papers of historic record, and to want to avoid taking moral positions on such cases.

But the truth is that none of our publications cover every single court case in our areas, and so – if only by default – we are making judgments based on taste, logistics and a degree of morality all the time.

We have to take responsibility for the impact of our coverage.

In most cases, that will mean assertively defending and nurturing our right to show justice being done, without fear or favour.

And that means resisting ridiculous restrictions such as the Section 39 order imposed on a child killed in a road accident in Devon recently.

But there are times when it’s not good enough for us to hide behind the mask of innocent bystander.

Times when we need to disprove Stanley Baldwin’s depiction of press bosses as exercising “power without responsibility – the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

All of which takes us back to where we started, I think.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s