/ rant

On poor journalism, inverted commas, and the systematic erosion of judicial process

This is the front page of today's Metro.

Over the past few weeks I've become increasingly annoying by the incredibly biased reporting that's been the full extent of the coverage of Rolfaroo In The Dock1. This, though, has made me incandescent with rage. Headlines like this should be illegal. If you're responsible for this sort of reportage, you should go to prison.

I think I mean that literally. Stuff like this is a complete subversion of the judicial process. I know I'm being slightly oversimplistic when I say this, but "innocent until proven guilty" is still (at least nominally) the basis of our crimal justice system. Even if you really, really think he did it. Even if he's obviously a right bad 'un. Even if he's bang to rights. Until such time as a conviction is delivered, he did not do it.

It seems that it's now obligatory to distort the facts of a story in order to make the most obscene, sensationalist narrative that can possibly be constructed. I know, I know: what else is new? But there's no longer even a pretence at impartialility. Here are a few genuine headlines from recent weeks.

Rolf Harris trial: Entertainer 'disguised dark side of character'

Rolf Harris 'told mother her teen liked him groping her'

Rolf Harris introduced girl to kissing, jury hears

Rolf Harris 'a dirty old man', jury told

Rolf Harris 'assaulted girl on holiday'

Rolf Harris used celebrity status to molest girls as young as seven, jury told

'Disgusting, vile, repulsive' Rolf Harris violated my trust, woman tells court'

Rolf Harris cornered teenager by pub toilet and groped her, court hears

Rolf Harris was dirty old man who abused victim for years, court told

I'm sure you can spot the two brilliant tricks that are repeatedly used. You simply state something as absolute fact, and then suffix the 'court is told' escape clause at the end. Alternatively, a couple of strategicly placed inverted commas will leave your journalistic integrity unblemished. It's easy. You can play along at home if you like:

Most journalists 'are low-life scum who almost certainly fuck goats at weekends'

'BBC Reporter remorselessly pissed on the grave of decent journalism', blogger claims

Nothing too libelous there, I'm sure you'll agree. I'm just reporting the facts.

The Metro article is, to quote Richard Curtis, 'the crowning turd in the waterpipe' of this particular trend. They might as well just throw away any straggling tattered remnants of neutrality and just print a headline of

Rolf Harris is guilty

of caring too much about poor orphaned kittens, jury hears

It enrages me almost to the point of arson. Why do we put up with this shit? Why do we not have laws that stop people doing this? You may well think that in this particular case there's a virtual certainty that Harris is, in fact, guilty. You may well be right2. That doesn't matter, though. He's not guilty yet. And rather than existing in some sort of limbo neither-guilty-nor-not-guilty state, like Schrödinger's Convict, the inconvenient truth here is that Harris is very explicitly and legally not guilty - and, until such time as a court rules otherwise, he should be treated as such.

No smoke without fire

The old adage of "there's no smoke without fire" is the thing that I see trotted out all the time when defending behaviour like this. The thing is, that's bullshit. There is, indeed, smoke without fire, often. That's why we have trials and the entire judicial system: to determine if, behind all the uncontested smoke there is, in fact, an actual fire. If not, we may as well just skip the entire chain and just automatically convict anybody who's accused of anything. After all, no smoke without fire, right? Lord McAlphine must be a peodophile, otherwise why would people be saying he was? No smoke without fire. The Birmingham Six must have done it - why they have been accused otherwise? No smoke without fire. Nelson Mandela must be a terrorist. NO SMOKE WITHOUT FIRE!

It's preposterous that I feel the need to articulate such a basic democratic concept, but it's something that seems to be entirely by-passed by most current 'journalism' - and here, if nowhere else, those inverted commas are entirely appropriate.

1It's not just the Rolf Harris trial, of course. There are plenty of other examples.
2Equally, you may be wrong (this being the entire point I'm trying to make here).

Johnnie Ingram

A portable Geek-to-English translation unit. Atheist, pedant, undercover feminist. Stalker of stand-up comedians. Quite likes Doctor Who.

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