The death of Caroline Flack is very sad, and my heart goes out to her family as they are trying to come to terms with her death.
There is no doubt that the media attention surrounding Caroline played a huge part in her suicide. This has pushed me to voice my concerns regarding Trial by Media.
Trial by Media is an area of great concern which I come across frequently in my work with the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation, where several of our clients have been front page news.
Media in all forms has no right to be judge and jury. I feel strongly that premature publicity of trials is a serious problem.
Information on the allegations and on the accused person is commonly released before they are convicted, or often before they are even charged.
This was bad enough when we only had newspapers and mainstream news, but it is important to consider that modern media is completely different. As soon as a possible scandal is mentioned, even in small community circles or niche networks, it is elaborated on and shared uncontrollably across multiple social media platforms. With each post the news is embellished with additional opinions and assumptions.
No accused person should face pre-trial by mainstream media, or by social media.
Premature publicity causes far-reaching and serious consequences for the accused, their friends and their families.
Premature publicity completely removes the chance of a fair trial. Jurors are normal people who watch news broadcasts and read local newspapers. It would be ludicrous to suggest that they are not biased, even subconsciously, by what they see and hear in the media. The idea that randomly selected people with no training and little accountability can be relied upon to self-police is unrealistic at best. The decision to either ignore or follow the ‘court of public opinion’ has far reaching consequences.
The presumption of innocence is a myth. Publicly accused people in our adversarial system are always presumed to be guilty and are faced with the often-insurmountable problem of proving their innocence.
Proving innocence reverses the burden of proof. It moves the burden of proof onto the weaker and less resourced party and it is incompatible with the spirit of our justice system.
Public accusations frequently create a self-fulfilling prophecy, and lead to a guilty verdict.
There are 5 main, case-specific reasons, followed by 2 general reasons, why the police and Crown prosecutors brazenly work with the media.
Strong and aggressive publicity:
1. encourages further victims to come forward.
2. generates additional evidence or new information.
3. generates public approval for, and interest in, the case.
4. forcibly influences prosecutors, judges and jurors towards guilt and makes it almost impossible for a not-guilty verdict to be returned.
5. wields a huge influence on defence teams who spend inordinate amounts of time persuading defendants of the futility of defence.
6. wins general public approval for the police and the Criminal Justice System.
7. serves the reciprocal relationship that news outlets have with the police and prosecutors. Crime is very newsworthy and those shocking reports, whether accurate or inaccurate, increase money, traffic and viewing.
All these motivations however are completely at odds with the presumption of innocence.
The argument that publicity is for the protection of the public and to prevent further offences has no merit, because if there were such risks then bail would only be granted with strict conditions, or the accused would not be released ‘under investigation’ and would instead be remanded into prison pending trial.
The legitimate benefits (numbered 1-3 above), could all be achieved through publicity that does not name the accused, until and unless they are convicted.
“Never again should the presumption of innocence be reversed.” Lord Bramall, 30/7/2019 (after his exoneration of historic allegations)
There is so much wrong with our criminal justice system and in my opinion, for what it’s worth, NOW is the time to make this cornerstone of our society a priority.