Journalism, treasure hunts and lynch mobs

Tabloids can hardly expect gratitude from the Attorney General when he prospects for contempt among their background stories, post-arrest and post-charge, in the Soham schoolgirls murder case. Whichever way he swings, this is a defining moment for journalism and for justice.

If the Crown believes jurors will be unable to erase from their minds prejudicial reporting about the nature of the accused, there will be no trial. The same goes if, down the line, the defence so convinces the trial judge.

If the Crown reckons lynch-party coverage we have seen presents no substantial risk of serious prejudice, then Soham will by default become the new benchmark for acceptable pre-trial reporting.

Media lawyers appearing to have played too safe will be diminished by newsdesks whose background nuggets they judged premature for publication at this stage. Contempt lessons learned at journalism faculties and at the elbow of gnarled sub-editors will need to be unlearned. McNae will be stood on its head. The press has not done itself too many favours over Soham.

True, editors were thanked by the besieged community for finally withdrawing their packs. But that will hardly weigh with the Home Secretary when he considers the coroner’s criticism of treasure-hunt reward offers. Police were swamped by 15,000 calls. People from far and wide walked the countryside hoping to discover bodies and hit the jackpot.

The coroner’s withering attack went unreported in the newspapers concerned. Thus was the freedom of the press devalued to the freedom of a newspaper to deny readers the truth when that truth disturbs its self-image.

Why didn’t the Express simply allow the paragraphs to stand in its inquest report and run a leader rationalising its quixotic offer of a million? And why didn’t The Sun do the same in defence of its offer of £150,000? Ask a silly question…

Newspapers at their best fighting for press freedom can be at their worst exercising the responsibility that goes hand in hand with such freedom. They leave themselves wide open to Stanley Baldwin’s historic insult (nicked from Kipling) that the press exercises power without responsibility:

 "The prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."  MPs could well identify an immediate opportunity to signal their hostility by according easy passage for Lord Chancellor Irvine’s bill to outlaw media payments to witnesses. Worse may be to come.  

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