The Media and Police Investigations

Before I begin I will make a couple of things clear.  Firstly, I am not and do not claim to be an expert on police investigation techniques or process.  Secondly, I am not making any specific accusations against any particular journalist or media outlet.

Last week the Attorney General in England took the unusual step of effectively reminding journalists of their obligations under the Contempt of Court Act in relation to their coverage of the investigation into the death of Jo Yates.

I am all for the press having the freedom to report on such cases and indeed anything that they feel is worthy of being printed or broadcast (even if I disagree with their editorial decisions and policies).  It is an important right in a democratic society and one that I will vigorously defend.  Curtailment of this right should only go so far as is absolutely necessary in a free and democratic society (and that goes for any other fundamental freedoms, rights and liberties).

However, with all rights comes responsibility, and of late (not just with the Jo Yates murder inquiry, but indeed in many other stories featured in the media over the last few years) the media seem to have forgotten about the responsibilities that come with such rights.  They must make sure that everything they present is balanced, fair and does not in any way prejudice a person, group of persons or a process.  They must also respect the privacy of private individuals.

A prime example of the privacy issue can be seen in the Jo Yates case.  The effective media scrum to get the best footage or shot of the grieving relatives as they visited the site where Jo Yates’ body was discovered.  In my view, respect for the privacy of those grieving the loss of Jo Yates demanded that this very difficult and emotional moment was a private one not broadcast on the national television news.  Indeed, I’m not really all that interested in how the family are grieving and what they are doing in order to help themselves come to terms with the loss of Jo Yates.  I’m more interested in the capturing and prosecution of the person responsible for such a heinous crime.

A further responsibility that the media have is to respect the privacy of police investigations and not comment critically on the investigation.  The fact remains that the media are only aware of what the police tell them and that will comprise of so little that it is fair to say the media don’t have a clue what’s going on.  It’s unhelpful and not really in the public interest for them to do these things: indeed it may even hamper a police investigation as they spend time countering accusations of ineffective investigations made against them by the media.

I have enough confidence in our police forces that they will conduct investigations into such serious and heinous crimes to the best of their ability with the knowledge and resources available to them.  It is up to the police to decide what is significant enough for them at that time to follow up.  Resources are limited (as much as we would like the opposite to be true, it is not) and as such the police cannot possibly follow up on every single possible lead received.  They must assess how each lead fits into what they already know and decide from there which leads are important enough for them to follow-up at any particular stage of the investigation.

Further to that, it is for the police alone to decide what should be released into the public domain through the media and for them to decide when and how the media can assist their investigation.  It is highly irresponsible for the media to get “experts” in who have no direct knowledge or involvement with the case in hand to discuss what should or might be happening.  This is pure speculation and does nothing to assist the police and their investigation.

Part of the problem may stem from the 24 hour news provision.  The various news stations have this need to fill every single second with what they consider to be news and can end up digging into a story so much that what they end up reporting is so far removed from the situation in hand it’s laughable.

Character assassination of those arrested on suspicion of these high profile crimes is utterly unnecessary and potentially very dangerous for the media outlets.  I’m not normally in favour of censorship of the media, but I really see no reason for the name of people arrested during the course of an investigation to be named in the media and would be in support of legislation to prevent the naming of suspects in all cases until they have at least been charged, and in some cases until conviction.  What if, and here’s an idea, the person arrested is in fact innocent.  What use has the media served by digging up people who knew X 2 or 3 decades earlier talking about their hair colour or how they found them to be “strange”? That of course, is merely conjecture by one or two individuals, but it suits the media in this country down to the ground.  It gives them something to report (rather than reporting on worthwhile things).   Of course they find the worst photograph of the suspect and together with their gutter investigations and reporting make it look like they are probably guilty.  On some occasions reports by the media during investigations appear to be more like trials by the media of each individual who happens to be arrested or interview in the course of an investigation.

There is also an arrogance surrounding the media generally in such cases.  In a news item I watched on TV today I heard the reporter say the following (or something almost exactly similar):

“There has been no reason or explanation for the delay in giving us this information”

This quote was in relation to the information released by the police today that Jo Yates was wearing only one sock, not boots and no jacket when she was found dead on a road near a quarry.  I’m sorry, but the police are not answerable to the media as to why they have chosen to release information when they have (and not later or earlier).  In fact, the police are under no obligation to give the media any information in relation to cases they are investigating.  The police release information to the media when they feel that to do so may assist their inquiries.

We have a system in this country to bring people to justice.  The police investigate a crime, any case against a person is then put before a court and the court then decides upon the guilt or innocence of an individual based on the evidence put before them.  The media can play an important part in helping to obtain information that can help the police find the right individual to put before the court but they must not in anyway, act in a way that is reckless or irresponsible.

I heard an argument, on TV, over this matter during one of the many reports on Jo Yates saying that they way in which the British press have conducted themselves is nothing compared to the way in which the press conduct themselves in the USA.  This was an apparent defence of the British media, but I’m sorry just because the media in the USA is worse doesn’t mean that either are acting correctly.

I’m sure by now that you will have got the point I am trying to make.  If you haven’t in short it is this: the media must act responsibly when exercising its right to freedom of the press and that I am rather annoyed with the way in which the media have been conducting themselves over the last few years.

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7 thoughts on “The Media and Police Investigations

  1. Some interesting views Alistair. Agreed re respecting the rights of grieving relatives. The right to privacy eg Article 8 ECHR should never be forgotten, but it is basic human decency that it is respected in the first place, without need for legislation.

  2. I would go as far as to describe the behaviour in the media in many situations as disgusting and abhorrent

  3. As an American, I always find it fascinating to hear about the views on freedom of the press in European democracies.

    While the press here can’t directly interfere in an investigation, they’re generally free to report whatever they want. If what they report makes things harder on a grieving family, or might prejudice a future jury, so be it.

    In short, there’s very little the media “must” do. There are things we would like for them to do, like respect people’s privacy, but it’s up to use to vote with our remote controls, and change the channel when news agencies act in ways we don’t like.

    The real problem, here at least, isn’t the media. It’s the consumers. We don’t demand better reporting and social responsibility from our news media. Quite the opposite. The more they focus on salacious details, the more we tune in. It’s like complaining that KFC is unhealthy while stuffing your face with a Double Down. (Don’t know if you have it over there, if not, Google it.)

    • We do indeed have KFC here in the UK. I quite enjoy one every now and then (everything in moderation).

      It is much different here in the UK re the media. It is illegal to publish anything that could potentially prejudice a jury.

      Personally I am very much in favour of keeping the principle that a person is innocent until proven guilty having gone through due process. It is a key cornorstone of our judicial system and helps to ensure fairness. I think that on some occassions the media get a little carried away and forget about that.

  4. Ultimately though, the question is who do we regulate? Should we forbid the media from publishing certain types of things? Or should we forbid the government from over-regulating the media?

    I’d rather place the restrictions on the government. Many media outlets will exercise some degree of self control. It’s rare that a government would do so.

    • I’m not a fan of too much Government intervention. However, as I said in my initial post, I would (in the interests of a fair trial and justice) support government legislation prohibiting the identification of those under arrest until the point of charge (and in some extreme cases until the point of conviction). Too many innocent people have their lives ruined by media coverage while under arrest and then not charged or prior to a trial at which they are acquitted (especially in cases involving sexual offences).

      No right or freedom can be absolute for to do so means infringing upon another fundamental right or freedom. We need to ensure that the rights and freedoms of all are protected in equal proportions as far as is practicable. Sometimes carefully constructed legislation is necessary.

      The constitutional set-up here is really quite different. We have no written constitution to which we can refer or seek protection of our rights and freedoms. In the UK Parliament is supreme and there is no higher authority.

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