SubScribe: The Le Vell trial: don't shoot the messenger Google+

Monday 16 September 2013

The Le Vell trial: don't shoot the messenger

There seems to have been less concern about this
than about the Guardian's straight court reporting

Oh we're a wicked bunch in the media. We don't focus on the important things. We get our facts wrong. We hack into people's phones. We are biased and our reporting is unfair....(add complaints to fill - Ed)

We've heard all of these and plenty more. We've all smiled at the raucously funny 'better watch what I say - don't want to end up in the papers' on being introduced to someone at a party. As members of a trade for which a key qualification is a thick skin, we should be used to it by now. Everyone blames the media for everything they don't like about anything. We 'print lies' and 'stir up dirt' just to sell papers.

Course we do. It's our business isn't it? Tesco is there to sell groceries, Apple to sell iGadgets, journalists to sell newspapers.

Well, no, actually. Most of us write our stories because we believe in them and we think that they will be of interest to our readers. We don't do it because we want our proprietors to make huge profits, any more than the lad in Tesco gives a toss about whether anyone buys the beans he's stacking. He does it because it pays his wages. Most journalists do it because they care about the job.

Even in these tough times for the industry, about 20 million people read a newspaper every day. Many millions more listen to the radio or watch television. The vast majority come back day after day, week after week. But still they hate us. Still they don't trust us. And when they disagree with the coverage of a subject close to their hearts, they vilify us.

And so it has been in the past few days since Michael Le Vell was cleared of raping a six-year-old girl. The mindless misogynists have demanded that the girl, now 17, be 'named and shamed' or prosecuted for perjury. Fanatical feminists have been saying that  Le Vell should have been convicted, even if innocent, 'pour encourager les autres'. 
More moderate folk on either side of the fence have called for anonymity for rape defendants or persisted in referring to the girl as 'the victim', in spite of the verdict.

Newspaper columns, breakfast TV sofas, websites, blogs, community forums have all been abuzz with the debate. There are so many expert opinions  (SubScribe is obviously The Most Expert):  people who know what the prosecution said, what the girl said, what her mum said, what Le Vell said, what the doctors said, what the judge said.

And how do they know all  this, given that Manchester Crown Court couldn't have accommodated them all?

From the media.

Yet the media are being attacked from all sides for 'hype', for 'unbalanced reporting', for 'sensationalism', for 'perpetuating rape myths'.

Before writing SubScribe on Wednesday, I read every report from every day of the hearing in every national newspaper, the local papers, the hour-by-hour live updates from the Manchester Evening News court reporters as well as the online coverage by the BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Apart from the questionable celebratory pictures and some weighted commentary after the verdicts, most of the coverage seems to have been straight down the line.

The trial of an actor who is welcomed into millions of living rooms two or three nights a week is of intrinsic interest to the public, whatever the charge. In a case that pitches him against a teenage girl alleging years of abuse, who needs hype?

If a prosecution barrister says that the defendant climbed into a six-year-old's bed and put a teddy over her face while raping her, what should the report or the headline have said? 'Actor assaulted child'? Hardly informative. Reporting the most striking things said in court is not sensationalism; it is telling the reader what happened.

Most of the complaints about press coverage of the trial have come from those whose natural instinct is to believe the accuser.
Just because Le Vell was found 'not guilty' doesn't mean he is innocent. Quite so.
Child abuse victims do not lie. Maybe not as a general rule.
But it is dangerous to apply general rules to a specific case as though they are gospel. That way, no man in a 'his word against hers' trial could ever be acquitted.

It also seems to be the 'serious' papers rather than the tabloids that have come in for the most criticism. Jane Merrick in the Independent was calm and thoughtful in considering the dangers of identifying accusers, shielding defendants, and a rolling bandwagon of ill-considered trials. But that apparently didn't excuse her for falling into the not guilty/innocent trap or spare her 'like 95% of rapists' mockery for her assertion that 'one day a guilty man might go free'.

Even more worrying were the websites that took  Nigel Bunyan of the Guardian to task for failing to question the judge's summing up. The judge instructed the jury that it had to decide whether the girl was being truthful in recalling traumatic events from an early age or if she was deceitful and had gone to court 'quite literally to destroy the life of the defendant'.

Perhaps there was a third possibility - that she believed she was telling the truth but that the attacks didn't happen - but that wasn't put to the jury. The judge presented a stark choice of malice or trauma. He may have been at fault in so doing, but a reporter cannot inject his opinion into a straight news report.

Bunyan is further criticised for not pointing out in his report of the defence barrister's closing speech that it is a 'rape myth' that victims scream.

The complainers may have a fair gripe against the judge and the barrister, but not the reporter. He did his job. Introducing background knowledge into a court report is an absolute no-no. There are strict rules for covering court cases and they do not allow reporters to express opinions, even if they know for sure that what is being said  is wrong.

As it happens, Bunyan is the most inappropriate target. He has spent many years interviewing women who have been raped, and he knows all about the myths and the sensitivity required. He has even just written a book on the Rochdale abuse ring and he told SubScribe that it mentions a little girl who did not scream:
'She was three or four at the time, and when she was eight her memory of that first time was jogged by a line in Roald Dahl's "The BFG" where a little girl 'screamed but no sound came out'. Heartbreaking.
We aren't all hard-nosed, unfeeling and thoughtless. Look, too, at the work of Andrew Norfolk for The Times, covering similar ground in Rochdale to Bunyan, and winning the Orwell Prize in the process.

Back with Le Vell, there seems to have been less concern about the Sun, which  managed to produce two bad front pages on the trot - first the 'Carling' acquittal and then the 'devil woman' splash, which was both weak and offensive - a spread of cold fare from the trial rehashed and spiced up with dotty quotes from 'neighbours'.

But the 'celebratory' tone hit a nerve. I wouldn’t say it was wise for Le Vell to pose for a photograph with a big grin, his thumbs up and a pint in hand. But there have been plenty of pictures of women with their arms in the air outside court after being cleared of killing violent husbands or partners. Were they inappropriate?

Of course there were follow-up interviews with Le Vell and he will naturally have spoken about his 'ordeal', but the Sunday Mirror headline didn't go down at all well.

Had  he been convicted, the tabs would have been ruthless in dissecting Le Vell's womanising and drunkenness. There would probably have been 'exclusive' interviews with the girl and her mother, accompanied by a picture of a shadowy figure against a bedroom window, possibly gazing down at a teddy held in both hands. With a 'not guilty' verdict it is trickier to give equal space to the girl - especially since the public - unlike the jury - is not allowed to know anything about her or her background that could lead to her identification.

What we do know is that the girl in this court was not a child clutching a favourite teddy, but a young woman of 17.  If she was raped at six, assaulted on random occasions over the next eight years and then disbelieved by a jury after finally plucking up the courage to tell the police, then she is going to be in a terrible state and in urgent need of love, help and support. 

And if she was lying? She is in need of love, help and support..

And if she believed herself to be telling the truth but the flashbacks were all in the mind?  Yes, again, she needs love, help and support.

It is a sad story all round. But the media didn't make it up. 


  1. Can see why you're getting riled. I want a newspaper that tells me what happened in the news section; the opinion columns are for, well, just that! Am hoping I get straight honest reporting & I'd expect it in any of our 'serious' papers. Don't have any expectations of the others unfortunately, except perhaps as sensationalist and less trustworthy. Best not to buy a newspaper for its headline, just its reputation. Jane

  2. Never mind gameoldgirl, that's the game the old girl is in and those are the rules :)

  3. Spot on Liz. Not sure what "the rules" are in the preceding comment but they sound dirty to me! Some people just cannot bear for others to express opinions that do not co-incide with their own. l find your viewpoint to be well considered and fair. Maureen G.

  4. I don't usually do anonymous comments but on the occasion the comment as profiles available were limited by the mobile device in use, so to redress the ID balance this is posted as moi.

    1. "The rules" referred to are those that human nature itself constitutes in the spread of extreme opinions expressed by those that read what Gameoldgirl and her peers report and publish in their roles as journalists.
      I have nothing but admiration for the considered balance and logical rationale that the author of this blog demonstrates which I refreshingly find I can strongly relate to.
      My original anonymous comment was simply a play on words :)