Libel, are the media responsible? – Conservative Article

Libel, are the media responsible? – Conservative Article

“Everyone charged with a criminal offence shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.” This phrase is commonly known as “innocent until proven guilty”. Presumption of innocence lies at the core of many justice systems, libel certainly does not. The former is a basic human right as stated in the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This Article is a fundamental element of the right to a fair trial. It sets up a system where people do not have to prove their innocence, and instead, the state must prove their guilt. 

This is something that the media has forgotten, especially when reporting high profile sexual assault cases. In an age where the public eye decides that someone is guilty pre-trial, is there even such a thing as a fair trial? 

Over the past decade, sexual violence has become an increasingly popular topic of discussion, quite rightly so. There are approximately 97,000 sexual assault cases being reported each year in England and Wales alone. This figure does not even take into account the fact that 3 out of 4 cases go unreported.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for victims of abuse to be provided with support. There is a clear lack of support for those who are abused, and it is certainly contributing to the stifling numbers of unreported cases. What must not be disregarded though when dealing with such sensitive cases, is the presumption of innocence. Although only 4% of sexual assault cases turn out to be false, this figure must be put into context. If there are 97,000 sexual assault cases reported each year, then that is 3,880 innocent people undergoing accusations based on libel. 

Presumption of innocence is vital if we are to maintain a fair justice system. 

The current case of Johnny Depp v Amber Heard is a perfect example of the dangers of presuming someone’s guilt. Depp has recently been in trial, suing NGN for libel as they headlined him as a ‘wife-beater’. These headlines were overwhelmingly prevalent at the time, and I myself, amongst many others, fell victim to assume the actor’s guilt. During the current trial, it has come out that Heard herself may have been the abuser, and Depp the victim. 

This case highlights three important issues; The first being that presumption of guilt can completely ruin a person’s reputation. The second being that in presuming Depp’s guilt, the discussion surrounding abused men becomes entirely disregarded. And finally, in allowing conspiracy around such a sensitive topic, the experiences of survivors is completely trivialised. Abuse is serious. Abuse ruins lives. Presuming guilt does not help this cause.

It is an absolute necessity that we listen to victims of abuse. We must take their experiences seriously in order to provide the support that they need. We must not, however, presume somebody’s guilt until they are proven guilty by the court of law.

Take the case of Mike Tunison, a successful freelance writer who once wrote for the Washington Post. In 2017 he was added to the Sh-tty Media Men list, a public document that anonymously collected a list of allegations of misconduct. Tunison was anonymously accused of harassment, despite there being no evidence. Tunison’s friends cut off all ties with him, his work dried up and reporters refused to maintain contact with him. He now works as a janitor. Tunison said in an interview You don’t know any of these claims, and you didn’t investigate any of this. How can you just socially ostracise people like this?’ The writer did not undergo any form of trial to prove his guilt. The public eye decided that for him. How is this just? 

It seems that we have reached a point of challenge amongst the media and public thinking. As it currently stands, unless we abandon the presumption of innocence, victims of abuse are not getting the help that they need. This is detrimental to our justice system. We must find a way to maintain the presumption of innocence and listen to victims of abuse. We must protect victims of libel as much as we seek to protect victims of abuse. 

Written by Guest Conservative Writer, Rebecca Selt

Point of Information

Libel = Bad, but 25% > 4% – a Labour response

Presumed innocence is a fundamental component of justice. We must do everything we can to address the fact that many people face injustice at the hand of false accusations. The problem is that in many cases there is little we can do. Furthermore, there are some obvious benefits to the naming and shaming aspect of #MeToo and related activism.

Although many news articles presume guilt, I don’t think that the media has necessarily ‘forgotten’ about presumed innocence. Articles have always drummed up sensation by making wild statements and accusations. Sometimes, even while technically up-keeping presumed innocence by using the term ‘alleged’, readers still absorb from the general tone of the article that the writer is implying that the person is guilty. 

This is an enduring cultural and social-psychological problem.

In this age of hyper-interconnection and internet-based livelihoods, people are increasingly exposed to the extra-legal punishment of public scorn. The Shitty Media Men list falls loosely under the category of ‘doxing’ which is to, ‘search for and publish private or identifying information about (a particular individual) on the Internet, typically with malicious intent

The morality of doxing is quite complicated. Most obviously, it is bad because it is often mob behaviour, academic research shows that unrestrained group dynamics lead to extreme interpretations of reality and heightened dispositions to violence. There are no quality-controls for the information that comprises the allegation expressed in each dox. 

Interestingly, Donegan, the writer of the Shitty Media Men list, recognises the. At the top of the document she says to, ‘take everything with a grain of salt’. However, people don’t seem to have taken this into consideration. Furthermore, some of the accused are not accused of anything illegal. People solely accused of “weird lunch “dates” are placed alongside people accused of “Rape”. The proximity of vastly different severities of wrongdoing is certainly an editorial flaw with the list. There is a difference between being allegedly shitty and being allegedly a rapist.

On the other hand, doxing can be a way of drawing attention to people who have escaped justice. As Rebecca says, 3 out of 4 rapes do not get reported. One of the reasons for this is because of fear of the repercussions of named victimhood. Doxing provides a way for the accuser to remain anonymous. This can help to make up for the lack of reporting about rapes. 4% of falsely reported rapes is a much smaller number than the 25% of unreported rapes.

There have and will continue to be unfair consequences of the list’s publication and we must develop robust ways of protecting the presumption of innocence. I would suggest some if I could think of any. I think the only way that we will get over this is through cultural change. As it stands, however, I think the existence of the list is a good thing if it proves to be an effective deterrent to being a Shitty Media Man. This is the first cultural change that I would like to see.

Written by Guest Labour Writer, Joseph Cradick

But what is the solution to end libel? – a Liberal response. 

I really like Rebecca’s article. In an age where media is driven by consumption and citizen journalism, ‘the presumption of innocence’ is seriously under threat. The principle underpins our justice system, yet is so poorly upheld as individuals are repeatedly condemned in the eyes of the public regardless of whether they have been condemned in the eyes of the law. 

I don’t feel I have anything to add to Rebecca’s argument that we need to find a way to maintain the presumption of innocence whilst being able to listen to victims of abuse. I couldn’t agree with this more. So, instead, I thought I would unpack some ideas that came to mind when thinking about how to solve this dichotomy. 

Firstly I toyed with the possibility of giving anonymity to people accused of sexual assault. 

Under the 2003 Sexual Offences Act, the identity of those who make sexual assault allegations is protected for life, but those who are accused can be named, even if they’re never charged. So, I thought potentially overturning this could be a way to maintain the presumption and protect defendants until they’re officially charged whilst also providing sufficient support to victims. 

But, changing the rules could have very real implications for the prosecution of sexual assault, not to mention the implications for press freedom. Women who’ve previously lacked the confidence to report an assault are often inspired to do so after seeing media reports picturing the same man. This forms the foundation of the #MeTooMovement. Such breakthroughs would never happen if anonymity rules were changed. 

Then I moved onto considering whether introducing stricter punishment for false allegations could be a way to maintain the presumption. However, I quickly moved away from this idea as stats on false allegations are extremely low. And, even if this did deter people from falsely accusing, it doesn’t stop the media from undermining the presumption in all other cases. 

Finally, I have settled on the idea that the media needs to be trained on the presumption of innocence as a way to help them understand this important but complex issue. They need to have a greater awareness of the impact their reporting can have on the fairness of trials and the dignity of suspects. This is not a perfect solution, but, if effectively enforced, it will contribute to maintaining the presumption whilst providing victims with proper support. 

It’s about finding a balance between “always believe” and “innocent until proven guilty”.

Written by Guest Liberal Writer, Libby Gilbert.

Joseph Cradick
Libby Gilbert
Junior Liberal Writer | Website

Hello! My name is Libby Gilbert, and I am a third-year undergraduate studying Politics at the University of Exeter. From a young age, I have been passionate about all things political, getting myself into many a controversial conversation that I wish I’d never started.

Rebecca Selt
Conservative Writer | Website

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