It's a new year! What are your resolutions? To get fit? To get over someone? To get that dream job? (Yeah, all of them) Or to upset a whole bunch of people and fly in the face of several laws and...common decency?
Yes? Then you must work for the British press!
Broad statement, I'll grant you. But it would seem in recent weeks that the media have thrown decency out of the window with the New Year. A brilliant article in yesterday's Evening Standard highlighted this, in relation to the coverage of the murder of Bristol-based architect Jo Yeates. Being a Bristolian myself, returning home to see Missing posters all over the city as a family was short one precious member over the festive season was a horrible experience, made even worse by the local news reports on Christmas Day confirming the worst.
But instead of the family being allowed to mourn in private, the media feeding frenzy began, getting worse and worse with every new revelation. When a man was taken into custody (incidentally, a teacher at my old school) the press were keen to paint him out as a mysterious eccentric, prone to creepy behaviour (largely thanks to some choice quotes from locals and staff). Basically, the press had decided he was guilty before the police had, showing an incredible disregard for the strict law previously observed by journalists and no doubt taught and repeated by thousands of current journalism students. Today's most recent inflamatory headline (from the good ol' Daily Mail) suggests Jo 'tipped off' her killers that she was home alone by stating to friends (no doubt on Facebook) that she was looking forward to a quiet weekend alone. This touches on two things - first off, it's disgusting, and second, the incredible power that social media has been playing in such cases in recent weeks.
(Disclaimer - I would never otherwise publish this vile content but it's to prove a point. And the juxtapostion of this headline with the 'funny stories' on Page 22 is too horrendous for words)
Firstly, the news that the police have launched a Facebook campaign to help find evidence relating to the case has received a massive amount of coverage, for the dual reasons that it will help utilise the massive amount of vigilante spirit going down on the media channels, and that it has apparently exposed how few leads the police have. The tabloids are waiting with bated breath for the police to make yet another mistake, replicate the Raoul Moat disaster. It reminds me of the moment in the first episode of the BBC's recent update of Sherlock, when, at a press conference in relation to a series of apparent suicides, a journalist asks the DI how women can protect themselves and the reply is 'don't commit suicide'. One of the officers whispers to the DI 'Daily Mail'. In the same way, borderline ludicruous sentences about the importance of a missing pizza and a missing sock have been widely reported, inevitably prompting sniggers from the reader and devaluing the seriousness of the investigation, any more than it has been devalued by the constant interference of the public. It got to the stage where Jo's grieving boyfriend, at a time when he should have been with his, and her, family, had to take a stand against what he described as the 'shameful' social media coverage of Jo's murder. Where was this statement reported? Twitter.
And the other important thing to appear on Twitter recently was the disappearance of South London teenager Serena Beakhurst, who, thankfully, was found alive and well recently. But does anyone care about this? Do they heck. What they care about is how much the social media campaign to find Serena, including retweets by serial high-profile tweeters such as Stephen Fry helped find the missing girl. No clue as to how exactly this worked, and I assume that all the attention and constant exposure of Serena's photo helped keep locals on the lookout. But all I seem to remember from all the coverage are the names Stephen Fry and Sarah Brown. No mention of a hardworking police team, who as well as having to comb the countryside for clues in solving Jo's murder, have to contend with a malevolent public baying for clues and demanding justice. Are the police being punished for the student protests? Probably not. But while the police frantically try to placate a baying mob by finding clues into the murder, her poor family have to read vicious nonsense in the papers when they should be free to grieve.
What about the initial suspect? Jo's landlord, released on bail following several days of questioning, is (as reported in the Evening Standard article) considering legal action as a result of the allegations. He believes they are ludicruous, and the deeply leading articles about his private life, his sexual preferences and his behaviour will probably follow him for the rest of his life. Guilty or not, he's paid a high price.
And it's not only the Mail that stoops this low. Several weeks ago, alongside its usual repetitive drivel about Angelina v Jennifer, 'the fashion Oscars' and 20% off at Asos, Grazia published an exclusive interview with the sister of murdered honeymooner Anni Dewani, whose husband was, at the time, facing extradition back to South Africa, the scene of the crime, to stand trial for paying for her murder. Alongside beautiful dresses and Jennifer Aniston, a picture of two smiling sisters, one of whom is now dead, and a sensationalist headline - 'If he did kill my sister, I will always wonder why'. Alarmist, sensationalist, leading, and probably contempt of court. A new low. Looks like 2011 is set to set a new standard for media's own version of torture porn.