Friday 19 August 2011

UK Riots: CNJ's contempt for 'name and shame'

The Camden New Journal prides itself on being an independently owned newspaper and it is taking an independent line from the "name and shame" stance of other parts of the press which are carrying pages of police pictures of alleged rioters and looters.

The CNJ's John Gulliver comment column says this week:

"YEARS ago, when I used to cover the courts, I had to follow the established rules governing preliminary hearings at magistrates’ court.

Only the name and address of the accused with a description of the charge could be published.

Anything else was barred: opening statement by the prosecution, police details about the charge, even a plea – it was all only for my notebook.

Anything that could prejudice a fair hearing was taboo.

The presumption of innocence, the cornerstone of our legal system, was held to be paramount.

In the past few years first newspapers, then TV news channels, have chipped away at this.

Year by year our tabloids have begun to ape the US press.

Once, an accused left early court hearings with his head covered to avoid prejudicial publicity.

This was reversed this week.

Men leaving courts awaiting trial at a crown court were taken away by police with their heads uncovered – and newspapers obliged by publishing their photograph.

Throw the presumption of innocence out of the window and you may as well say goodbye to natural justice.

This week, politicians in government, the Crown Prosecution Service, judges and newspapers and TV channels have taken leave of their senses.

This never happened during other riots – in Brixton and Liverpool in the 1980s, for example.

It is as if the nation is facing an unprecedented national crisis.

Yet, during a real crisis, the Second World War, the police, media and politicians acted far more sensibly.

It is one thing for the police to have published the name and shame photographs of suspected rioters but did the media, including local papers, have to ape them?

You would have thought the media would have learned from the way they virtually condemned an innocent man, Chris Jefferies, as a suspect in the Jo Yates murder case in Bristol.

I am glad to see newspapers are being sued by Jefferies.

This sort of thing has been getting worse year by year.

Whenever a big crime story breaks tabloids stick two fingers up to the “contempt of court” rules that were once part of the bedrock of a newsroom’s do’s and don’ts.

If you publish a picture of a “suspect” in the riots, in effect you are saying he is thought to have been committing a most serious offence of rioting.

You have already begun to put him on trial – though he has not yet even appeared in court.

Thank goodness major news channels and some newspapers are refusing to provide the police with photographs that have not been published.

For a democracy to function there has to be a separation of powers between the legislators, the judiciary, the police and the media.

If the politicians and the police throw the rule of law out the window, should the media blindly follow?

If it does, this is the road to an authoritarian state."

  • CNJ editor Eric Gordon spoke out against 'naming and shaming' at an NUJ debate on riot covearge last night. He urged journalists to follow their conscience and not produce material that could be in contempt and prejudice trials.

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