The relationship between the media, the criminal justice system and public opinion is complex. Photographs of suspects not yet charged on the front page: innocent until proven guilty? Tweets directly from the courtroom: sensationalist sound bites or transparent sentencing? Headlines declaring prisons holiday camps: reflecting public opinion or prejudicing penal policy?
The John Howard Essay Prize invites entries from undergraduate and postgraduate students across the country, and the calibre of entries has increased year on year. One month after the Leveson Inquiry published its final report, this year’s Prize asked students to consider the symbiotic relationship between the media and the criminal justice system.
The Howard League for Penal Reform’s submission to the Leveson Inquiry highlighted some of our concerns around the reporting of crime and the impact it has on public debate around law and order issues. The media not only define and limit the scope of our understanding about the nature of crime and punishment but they also determine perceptions of the scale of the problem crime presents and the parameters of what can be done by way of ‘solution’.
Students are the next generation of penal reformers. It is important that they can look beyond the headlines and examine the evidence for themselves: evidence of a bulging prison population, high recidivism rates and a pitiful lack of access to education and employment.
The Essay Prize was judged by Eric Allison, the Guardian's prison correspondent and himself a former prisoner. Who better to pass a verdict on this year’s subject? We are extremely grateful to him for his time and dedication in judging the competition. Over to Eric . . .
The Guardian's Eric Allison on the winning essays:
After much thought, I found that I could not split two undergraduate entries, so awarded Christian Rowlands (Cambridge) and Katie Sambrooks (Cardiff) joint winners.
Nowhere was there greater proof of media meddling threatening the administration of justice than in two of the examples cited in Christian Rowlands’ excellent essay. First, the ruling in the House of Lords that the then home secretary had acted unlawfully in taking account of a public opinion poll, conducted by a tabloid newspaper, when increasing the jail terms of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson. Then, the Sun's headline ‘Hillsborough the Truth’ which blamed and defamed the thousands of Liverpool supporters, including the 96 men, women and children who died in the 1989 disaster.
Katie Sambrooks is another worthy winner. Hers is a well thought out essay, clinically assessing the evidence and getting to the point early. Addressing the question of prejudicial pre-trial publicity she says, “Guilt or innocence must be determined in the courtroom, where the full facts can be considered, not through media outlets, where selective elements are reported.” Pre-trial publicity has played a part in virtually every high profile case where a miscarriage of justice has occurred, yet appeal judges rarely allow it to sway their decisions.
Finally, Rose Harvey, Kaplan Law School, was a worthy winner of the postgraduate category. What she calls “the jewel in the media's crown” (its ability to analyse a subject in close detail) also acts as one of its greatest hindrances, for victims and suspects alike, when the reporting is prejudicial.
To quote the concluding lines:
"These exchanges of information, between press and public, are vital to the promotion of a transparent, upright justice system, and should be cherished and celebrated, instead of traded for a quick sale or a pithy headline."
Words deserving of a berth above every news editor's desk.
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