British editors often say they would like to have the freedom exercised by the media in the United States, which is underpinned by rights granted in the first amendment.
When people are arrested in Britain newspapers are restrained from publishing material that might prejudice a possible trial. The suspect’s reputation is also protected by the law of libel.
Some editors dislike the constraints and have dared, on occasion, to ignore the law. When Joanna Yeates was murdered, for example, her landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was ill-treated. The result: two papers were fined for contempt of court and eight papers paid him libel damages.
But why should anyone laud the American system? A current case in South Carolina, as detailed by media academic Doug Fisher, illustrates the gross injustice of letting the press do as it likes, How a newspaper is a convicting a man before trial.
Let’s start off with this headline on 29 August in South Carolina’s largest daily newspaper, The State…
It concerns Freddie Grant, a man arrested following the disappearance of a 15-year-old girl, Gabrielle Swainson. The story below it is based on an interview with the local sheriff, Leon Lott.
As Fisher remarks, the sheriff “no slouch when it comes to media savvy, continues to spin the story like a twister coming out of the plains.”
Here are the opening paragraphs to the story:
“A man described as a monster and a career criminal forced 15-year-old Gabrielle Swainson from her home in the wee hours of the night on Aug. 18 and took her to his burned-out house on a dirt lane in Elgin.
What happened in that house is unknown, but there is clear evidence of foul play, Sheriff Leon Lott said Tuesday.”
Fisher seems unduly upset about the opening par because it is unattributed, which strikes me as completely beside the point. Whether attributed or not, the fact is that readers will have an image of Grant as “a monster” and know he has a criminal record.
I’m slightly more in accord with him over his analysis of a follow-up story, headlined Lott: Kidnapping suspect had key to Columbia teen’s home. It began:
“The mystery of how an accused kidnapper entered the home of missing teen Gabrielle Swainson has been solved after investigators found a key inside the suspect’s house, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday.”
Fisher points to the Associated Press stylebook:
“To avoid any suggestion that an individual is being judged before a trial, do not use a phrase such as accused slayer John Jones; use John Jones, accused of the slaying.”
But that’s just a wrinkle. The real sin here, surely, is the revealing of key evidence before trial in a pejorative manner. The crime is all but “solved” in this story.
In the latest development yesterday – though you may well feel the horse bolted long ago – Grant’s lawyers have asked the court to silence the sheriff. In seeking a gag order, their writ says: “Mr Lott has not arrested a monster; he is trying to build one.” Exactly.
And the newspaper – standing four square behind its “right” to report fearlessly – is certainly aiding the sheriff in his character assassination. Freedom is all very well but it must be used responsibly.
I really don’t think we want that kind of press freedom in Britain, do we?
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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