Published on August 22nd, 2014 |
by Lorna Carnegie
Is the Media too Quick to Convict?
Just two years ago, during the Leveson inquiry it was concluded that police investigations should be “controlled more tightly” to stop the media creating the “perception of favouritism” and potentially “violating the private rights of individuals”. Yet in this past week we have seen what has been described as a “witch-hunt” for Sir Cliff Richard whose home was searched by police after a claim of sexual assault was made against him.
The BBC had prior knowledge of the allegations against Sir Cliff and with it pressured the reluctant South Yorkshire Police into revealing exclusive information about the raid of Sir Cliff’s Berkshire property. South Yorkshire police claim, however that their decision to involve the BBC was “not taken to maximise publicity,” as had been claimed in media reports, but to “preserve any potential evidence” as the force believed that if they did not cooperate then the BBC could jeopardise the investigation. In giving the reporter the story, however, the police have surely opened the investigation up to the bias of the media and of the public opinion, and if the allegations are found to be untrue it could have made Sir Cliff’s life very difficult for some time to come.
Insiders at the BBC claimed that the coverage of the police raid reflected the drive by senior management to break more stories after the BBC was beaten by ITV News to the Woolwich attack, which later won them an award, and by Channel 4 News on the Plebgate story, which also won them much praise. This would suggest, therefore that the BBC had little concern for the consequences of their report; they were merely looking for a scoop. Counter to what appears to have been their aim, the report has not won them acclaim but has instead led them to be greatly criticised and accused of behaving like tabloid newspapers, using knowledge of the investigation to leverage exclusive access to the raid. Casting doubt on the police tactics, Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, told the Telegraph: “I can see that police might not want to warn somebody about a search because they fear a suspect will destroy the evidence. But it was much odder to tip off the BBC that they were carrying out the raid. That seems quite extraordinary.
When speaking to the Times, Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons home affairs committee, stated that the police have a “duty to act with fairness and integrity” and vowed that “incalculable damage can be done to the reputation of individuals in circumstances such as this”. Dave Lee Travis was cleared of 12 counts of indecent and sexual assault in February but has had his reputation and life ruined. He is however now to be retried for 2 charges of indecent assault and sexual assault and a new count of indecent assault. Mr Travis denies the charges and said, in an interview after his trial, that he had lost respect for the justice system and accused the Crown Prosecution Service for “overcompensating” for its “failings” in the Jimmy Savile case.
Similarly, although the celebrity publicist and public relations ‘guru’, Max Clifford, was the first to be convicted of sexual assault as part of Scotland Yard’s operation Yewtree, his lawyer claimed that Clifford’s trial was “haunted by the spectre of Jimmy Savile”.
Sir Michael Parkinson, former BBC journalist speaking to ITV news, claimed that “anybody not charged should not be named by the police and shouldn’t be reported in the newspapers either…I think the Cliff Richard case only highlights the feeling there is some kind of witch-hunt going on. We should pursue people, of course, who have done wrong. What I am concerned about is the manner in which they go about it and the manner in which the media follow through.”
After the eventual success of the Jimmy Savile case, police and judicial services are desperately trying to comb out potential sex offenders who have, until now, been untouchable by the law. First there was Max Clifford and has since been Dave Lee Travis and Rolf Harris among others who have been tried over indecent and sexual assaults.
One does however fear that the media paints those who are innocent with the same brush as those who are guilty and if there is desperation for a breaking story then the media bias could create unnecessary hysteria. With increased media involvement, as has been seen with the recent raid on Sir Cliff’s property, remaining innocent till proven guilty in the eyes of the police, the public and the courts may become less likely as fears and media speculation increase.
We shall have to wait and see the outcome of the search of Sir Cliff’s property and the development of the allegations made against him. However the coverage of the raid on his property has shown that the involvement of the media is not always immediately necessary. Many people have voiced their criticism of the BBCs handling of the story and are of the opinion that until a case is made against the accused the public need not know of the allegations.
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