As we speed through the brave new world of social media, disasters splatter against our windscreen like so many mosquitoes. We can ignore some of them, look past them, wipe away others – but eventually, we must stop, scrub the glass clean – and start again.
24 hour rolling news seemed like a good idea at the time. It is rapacious in its need for new events, new dramas, new misery for us to peer at. It was a natural evolution to morph into ‘speculation’ – the ‘news’ before it has really happened, may never happen.
At the same time, social media caught the public imagination. You could ‘make’ the news yourself, and publish it – anonymously even. That last point heralded the world wide publication of what had previously been the province of the poison pen letter. It also gave the rolling news a new source of ‘speculation’.
This week has seen a train crash of epic proportions between these two juggernauts racing along the tracks.
If the Daily Mail is to be believed, a woman lies dead tonight. Sky news is remarkably reticent on the subject, surprisingly so, considering their involvement.
I started my on-line life by moderating on what became a ‘McCann’ forum. I have seen too much of the hideously offensive bile and threats poured out in the direction of Madeleine McCann’s parents to ever fall for the ‘we’re entitled to our opinion’ line. Yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion – express it in the pub or or anywhere where you are not anonymous and you may have to stand by your opinion – everybody else is equally entitled to defend their reputation. Social media granted us a new ability – the ability to express defamatory/libellous opinions and not have to stand by them – for we could be anonymous, and have an audience of thousands.
Last week, a dossier was handed to the police naming some of the people who have made death threats towards the McCanns – and threats towards their remaining children. I have no problem with that; anybody who has information concerning activities they believe may be a crime, any crime, should do the same. I have no knowledge of what was in that dossier – but if it represents a fraction of some of the vile material I have had to read my way through whilst moderating that forum then I wholeheartedly support them. Hold your own opinion as to the relative merits of the parents actions by all means; threaten vigilante action because you believe, from the comfort of your armchair, that you have read some anonymous writing on the Internet that you consider to be conclusive proof of their guilt does not entitle you to incite others to take physical retribution. That is crossing a line way beyond ‘expressing an opinion’.
I do have a problem with what happened after that dossier was handed in.
It became a news story. Not a news story when it had been established that a crime had been committed, and a criminal apprehended – it became a ‘speculative’ news story.
Sky news didn’t wait to see if the Police believed that any crime had been committed – they sent their senior crime reporter to the woman’s door. When she wouldn’t admit them nor give an interview – they doorstepped her in the street. They acted as judge and jury for the mob. They named her and humiliated her.
Why? Have we really appointed the media to replace the criminal justice system?
That was on Wednesday – today she was found dead in a nearby hotel.
If, as is believed, she was responsible for some of vile threatening postings that have emerged directed at the McCann’s, then it is right and proper that she should be punished by the criminal justice system. That would inevitably result in her being exposed to public gaze. So be it. Possibly, if she has taken her own life, she would have done so then in any event.
But this is different. This was the media pre-judging whether a crime had been committed. The story was given massive coverage, a ‘special report’ from our senior crime correspondent. Premature articulation, yet again. Did the media learn nothing from Chris Jefferies? It was hounding and humiliation on the basis of Internet rumour – precisely the ‘crime’ that the woman concerned was supposed to have committed.
On the same day, the Sky evening news heavily featured the ‘quiet and private’ memorial service for Alan Hemmings – so quiet and private, that news cameras inside the church were zooming in to catch every line of grief and desolation on the face of his widow. We have had days of publicity for his murderers – the rolling news delighting in the propaganda video put out by his captors.
We have had days of speculation as to why ‘a Latvian who had served his sentence for murdering his wife’ was admitted to this country (possibly for the same reason that hundreds of Britons wanted for crimes, never mind served their sentence, have been admitted to other European countries for years!). Not just his face, wanted as a ‘possible witness’, but his criminal record endlessly reported – and now he too has taken his life. Perhaps he did commit another murder – or perhaps he was a man who had served his sentence, made a new gainfully employed life, and was now exposed to humiliation and hounding by a media scrum. We may never know.
If we really have that much mistrust in the police and the criminal courts in 2014, and wish to appoint the media in their place, then so be it – but let it be a conscious decision, and have a considered debate on the rules of engagement, not a free for all dictated by struggling media empires.