A culture of leaks and contempt
A Law Unto Themselves (from today’s Media Guardian, may require free registration)
Peter Wilby (former editor of the New Statesman) on the “consistent and brazen disregard for the contempt laws” which exists in the British media at the moment, which has manifested itself in lurid coverage of ongoing investiations into alleged terrorist plots:
Take last week’s coverage of the alleged kidnap plans by Birmingham-based Muslims. “The execution plot: Terror gang planned to kidnap, torture and behead a soldier on our doorstep,” announced the Sun. Just in case we wanted to know what an execution might look like, the front page showed the US hostage Nick Berg being executed in Iraq in 2004. The Times front page prominently quoted “a senior police source”, a ubiquitous and garrulous creature on these occasions: “This is Baghdad come to Birmingham … The soldier would have been filmed dressed up … like Kenneth Bigley.” The Times duly printed a picture of Bigley, a Briton murdered in Iraq in 2004, in an orange jump suit.
The “contempt laws” in question are the sub judice laws which have, in the USA, been struck down several times as contrary to the First Amendment. In this country, they demand that the media do not publish more than the barest details and “avoid publishing material which might prejudice a jury if the case came to trial”. Wilby gives a few examples of material from the coverage of the Birmingham “kidnapping plot” which clearly contravene anti-prejudice laws:
“There would have been no negotiations and no mercy for the victim,” explained Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. The operation was “orchestrated by al-Qaeda”, confided the Mail. The soldier would be filmed “against the backdrop of a Jihad banner as he pleaded for his life,” according to the Express, which also assured us the executioner would be hooded.
Some of the suspects had travelled to Pakistan “where they were put in touch with extremist groups”, revealed the Times. Police had found “grisly videos of beheadings”, said the Sun. They had also found “personal dossiers on soldiers, including addresses, car numbers and places of work”, added the Mirror. Circumstantial evidence may not be admissible in court, but it is certainly allowed in the papers. One of the premises raided by the police, the Maktabah bookshop, “has links with several past and present terror suspects”, noted the Telegraph.
As well as “incendiary works”, it had “display cases stacked with veils, incense sticks, huge jars of perfume and an array of ceremonial candles”, the Times reported damningly.
The papers dutifully scattered “alleged” through their stories but, the morning after the raids, neither the Express nor the Sun managed to get the word on their front pages. Indeed, the Sun criticised BBC news for noting that “the intelligence services often get it wrong”. “Just whose side are these guys on?” the paper demanded.
Wilby notes that the coverage also frequently pictures Muslims in such contexts (and rarely in other contexts); in this case, they include a picture of three veiled Muslim women, one of them giving a V-sign and another who, according to the Sun, “stared icily ahead”:
If their neighbourhood had been infested by cameras all day, these were probably natural reactions and, for all you and I know, a photographer may have provoked them deliberately.
Osama Saeed has written about the problem of police leaks and secret briefings here and here. In connection with the second, today’s Evening Standard named the woman and printed a picture of her, noting that she was seen cycling in regulation Met hijab and used police uniform as an improvised prayer mat.
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