Thursday, 11 October 2007

Innocent or guilty - before anything is proven

Yes, it's another post about the Madeleine McCann saga, so if you are now heartily sick of discussion on the matter please avert your eyes and press the back button on your browser.

I don't mean to belittle what is obviously a terrible human tragedy as far as the little girl is concerned - more the way that coverage has been handled on the matter. Scarcely a day goes by without coverage of the matter - and this wouldn't even be a bad thing if the coverage wasn't so clunkingly awful. Even the broadsheets are weighing in on the are they/aren't they guilty debate with some spectacularly ill-advised pieces.

A strange thing seems to happen when people have been in the public eye for some time. Suddenly media and public alike feel they have the authority to comment on their character, their actions - and now, seemingly, their guilt or innocence.

Of course this isn't the first time this has happened, not by far; the trial of Michael Jackson over child abuse charges a few years ago was a particularly good example. "He's guilty," people would say authoritatively, with a level of conviction that would suggest they had witnessed a crime with their own eyes. On the other side, those who passionately believed in his innocence. "Oh no, he could never do a thing like that," they would say in horror. How do you know? How do you have any idea what somebody you have never met, will never meet and only know because of their public profile is capable of?

The same is happening for the McCanns. You only have to scroll down to the comments section following any Maddie article online to see people declaring their faith in the McCanns' innocence, or, alternatively, levels of hatefulness that are unpleasant to read. Whilst I don't have any view on the McCanns' innocence or otherwise - and am actively trying to avoid forming one - these people seem to have no problem in spewing vitriol and attaching the word "murderers" to two individuals who have not been convicted of any offence and as yet are not even charged with an offence. The "innocent" camp, whilst still (in my view) misguided, at least are demonstrating some sort of faith in human nature.

So who facilitates this unpleasant polarisation of public opinion? Who invites people to speculate on guilt or innocence? Fingers, naturally, point to the media, who respond along the lines of, "oh, but there's such a huge public demand for Madeleine McCann coverage that we are simply compelled to provide it." Fair enough - to a point. The initial interest in the case has gathered such momentum that media outlets naturally want to take advantage of it - I'm not disputing that, it makes good economic sense for them. What I am disputing is the assertion that "we're providing what people want to hear" somehow excuses shoddy reporting. People would probably like to hear that the Government is going to abolish income tax. Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to report that it might happen because there is no factual basis for the assertion - much of the coverage of the Madeleine saga is wildly speculative and has no factual basis (at least none that can be currently verified).

This sort of irresponsible reporting encourages people to turn into amateur detectives and make all sorts of knowing comments about the events on the night that Madeleine disappeared. But this is not Cluedo. It's not Kate McCann in the tapas bar with the sedatives because this is real life, and in real life we (society in general) are supposed to cherish the principle that one is innocent until proven guilty. Really? In that case, reading some of the coverage of this case leaves me with the unpleasant impression that the McCanns have already been tried and found guilty - without ever setting foot in a courtroom.


Paranoid Pupil said...

Hi there Tabs, thanks for reading my blog, and for alerting me to yours! I will follow your progress through bar school and pupillage interviews with interest. It is tough but no use getting downhearted about it - I think that one has to meet life with humour and enjoy the occasional humiliations which life throws at one! Do as many mini-ps as you can - and make sure that you do the assessed mini-ps at those which demand them (if those are the kind of sets you are interested in). What sort of law are you looking to practice? Have you set your heart totally on the bar, you poor fool!? We all know that it is idiotic to do so, but we jump into it regardless!

tabula rasa said...

I'm not totally set on it - am increasingly drawn towards the UN seeing as my interests lie primarily in public international law and there's no way I'm going to get to practice much of that fresh out of the BVC and green as anything.

I actually got told that too many mini-pupillages could be interpreted negatively by prospective chambers! How many would you recommend?

Other than that, probably looking at sets which have a good mix of public/European/PIL/bit of crim and HR perhaps. Mostly ones which make me look at the qualifications of their tenants and gibber in fear and inadequacy.

Oh, it's a sad state of affairs when you have all these "qualifications" and you're still pitifully insignificant in the grand scheme of things! Why do we do this to ourselves??

At least one major hurdle is over for you now - how many tenancies does your chambers tend to offer relative to pupillages?