The Guardian’s readers’ editor on…the presumption of innocence and the reporting of arrests
I am a fan of The Guardian’s readers’ editor column, which analyses the paper’s judgements and explains them to readers who’ve often been moved to criticise it. Today’s column looks at recent reporting of high-profile arrests, which have later seen suspects released without charge but not before they’ve been identified first. Cases such as Christopher Jefferies (which I’ve blogged on recently) and, more recently, Rebecca Leighton have raised huge doubts about the way the media appears to rush to judgement in its reporting of some crimes. This piece explains some thinking behind these judgements – although it’s worth asking whether The Guardian would have needed to give the story of Rebecca Leighton’s release ‘due prominence’ had it not named her in earlier reports immediately following her arrest.
The cover of the last edition of today's NotW
Anyone who’s worked in a newsroom will understand the uncomfortable situations journalists sometimes have to address when pursuing a story. A very good example of this – which I have experienced – is the ‘death knock’, where reporters are sent to interview a family who has just suffered a tragedy. Often, the best stories result from such endeavors – and they have shifted many millions of copies of newspapers over the years. But they can also be painful for all concerned.
I once visited the family of Michael Hodder, who was the train driver involved in the Paddington train crash in October 1999, whilst working on a local paper in his home town of Reading. Six months into the job, I got nowhere that day; Sky and the The Sun were already there – and were greeted by a furious and very upset man who chased them down the street. We had been tipped off about Hodder’s Reading connection by someone who worked in the office who knew his family. It often happens that way. But I also remember the police being bemused at how quickly a posse of tabloid reporters had turned up following the same lead (who had given it to them?).
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‘Rupert Murdoch’s arrogant empire must be reined in’ – The Observer
One of a number of pieces about the News of the World phone hacking scandal in The Guardian’s sister paper today. Campaigning journalist Henry Porter draws our attention to the ‘bigger picture’, reminding us that this story is about much more than one high profile individual. It is about more than celebrities having their phones hacked too; ordinary people routinely suffer far worse, as Christopher Jefferies can testify. And it is now emerging that more papers could be sued by people whose privacy has been trampled over. This story is not going away any time soon.
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‘Squalid truth behind the Sun’s murder reward’ – Media Guardian
Roy Greenslade takes aim again at the tabloid press, and The Sun in particular, whose offer of a £50,000 reward to help catch Joanna Yeates’ killer is treated with cynicism. He should know; Greenslade was once a senior executive at the paper, when Kelvin MacKenzie (think ‘Freddie Star ate my hamster’, or worse) was editor.
Homes for heroes win £660k grant – Bristol Evening Post
I blogged about this fantastic self-build project over Christmas after working on the story just before the festive break. It’s great to see it win some more deserved recognition early in the new year.
The concerns surrounding some media reporting of the Joanna Yeates murder case in Bristol have become more public since I blogged about it a couple of days ago.
It emerged yesterday that Avon and Somerset Police took the rare step of banning ITV News from its morning press briefing because it had run a story the previous night that was the force thought was unfairly critical of its investigation. The ban was lifted, and the report did not threaten to undermine potential legal proceedings (as other reports have done). But it’s a measure of how tense things have become, and illustrates how the media risks misjudging the balance between reporting freely (which should always be allowed) and irresponsibly (which the police are right to act against, in the interests of finding Joanna Yeates’ killer).
Meanwhile, the Bristol Evening Post’s splash yesterday reported how media organisations were written to by suspect Christopher Jefferies’ lawyers and warned of their probing into, and reporting of, their client’s life. The high number of reader comments underneath the story (not all are relevant, admittedly) demonstrate the strength of feeling and interest there is locally about the case.
When I worked in newspapers, it was made clear that you did not write stories about the antics of fellow journalists; the public was ‘not interested’ in such introspection. When the news media does report on itself, you can be sure that something is seriously amiss, as Roy Greenslade points out here.
Bristol was at the centre of a narrative that gripped the country over Christmas, following the disappearance, discovery and investigation into the murder of Joanna Yeates.
Inevitably, some coverage resulting from the arrest of suspect Christopher Jefferies raised concerns that the media could undermine the investigation. This will be all too familiar to those with an understanding of how crime is reported in this country.
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