Shine A Light

Trial by tabloids

Media misbehaviour can wreak havoc on ordinary lives — is it worth it?

Rose Harvey
9 August 2013
Rose Harvey_1.jpg

Rose Harvey is the postgraduate winner of the John Howard Essay Prize 2013. The question was: Trial by tabloids: Do the media facilitate or threaten the administration of justice in England and Wales? The undergraduate winners are Katie Sambrooks and Christian Rowlands.

Political and legal freedom of expression is one of the most fiercely celebrated human rights throughout the world, and is often held up as the sign of a liberal and open democracy. But why is this the case? The reason, proffered time and time again, is that an independent media has the capacity to hold authorities to account for their actions, creating fairer, more transparent systems of government and justice. To this end, journalists are afforded privileges in respect of, amongst other things, the anonymity of their sources and their modes of research[1]. However, society now demands that news – especially online – is instant, perpetual and ever more pervasive. The Leveson Report condemned press behaviour as having ‘wreaked havoc with the lives of innocent people,’[2] and individuals are facing criminal charges for allegedly abusing their privileged positions as journalists and editors. Do the media still fulfil the same role as a bastion of open justice, or have they crossed a line?

Freedom of the press is the sharpest of double-edged swords: it provided a forum for victims of the Savile saga (both in terms of sexual abuse and police failings) to come forward and claim justice, yet also gave journalists the right to publicise the names, intimate details and photographs of further potential ‘abusers’ – frequently individuals who had not been charged – to their great detriment, both socially and legally. Jim Davidson, for example, was publicly arrested in Heathrow, was the subject of numerous headlines, but has not yet charged with any offences. He has lost lucrative television contracts and his reputation is irrevocably damaged. The principle of ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is somewhat muddied in these murky waters.

As well as unwanted invasions into the private lives of suspects and even the widely condemned hounding of innocent families of victims, such as the Dowlers, the media has on occasion reached its own incendiary and often premature conclusions, not always based on the most accurate information. In bids to gain the widest readership or disclose the most information, headlines such as ‘Now you pay for prison parties’[3] or ‘Tough childhood? Get out of jail free’[4] swamp the most read news websites in the world,[5] catchy one-liners to fit within a tweet and grab the most attention.

Not only is this portrayal of prison life inaccurate, but it drives a further wedge between prisoners and the rest of society: the real and vulnerable people behind these hysterical headlines become objects to be criticised, rather than individuals, as tabloid ‘verdicts’ threaten to sever the few threads still linking prisoners to the outside world. Faced with little accountability in this respect and harried to produce answers by the churning mill of social media, ‘trial by tabloids’ infiltrates the machinery of the justice system itself.

Furthermore, the ability to attend and comment upon trials in progress means that influential verdicts can be reached in the press before they are delivered in court. The recent Vicky Pryce affair is a case in point. After unnecessarily long deliberations, the original jury returned to the courtroom with ten questions, including whether they could reach a verdict based on information put forward by neither prosecution nor defence, and whether they could rely on their own speculations[6]. Given the extensive coverage on the Huhne-Pryce marriage since 2011 (and particularly in the months leading to trial), it is unsurprising the jury had gleaned extra, potentially biased, information about Ms Pryce’s circumstances[7]. Indeed, the fact that they hoped to rely on hearsay and conjecture simply reflects the speculative nature of today’s tabloid ‘justice’.

And the result? A fresh jury - who themselves are likely to have read about the original failed trial in the press, a complete retrial costing time and money, and a system of law and justice jeopardised by a reliance on the comments and verdicts of the press.

Not only do the media frequently reach decisions on trials before the courts do, but when judgments are given, they are greeted by sensationalist headlines, at times providing inaccurate information. The Sun, for example, reported on a 2013 case regarding relaxing CRB checks, loosely connected to ‘sex beast’ Ian Huntley. They ran the headline, ‘Inhuman Rights: Now EU could let fiends like him prey on your children’[8]. The decision was not only made by the Court of Appeal (a distinctly UK court) but it was in recognition of a clear breach of particular defendants’ rights to privacy in detailed and specific circumstances. Only two of the three combined appeals (none of which actually concerned Huntley) were upheld, both of which concerned minor cautions for shoplifting when young.

The two-page spread in The Sun, including an interview with a victim of Huntley, however, gave no detail as to the judgment itself: a single (misinformed) line was all that was needed to run a scare-mongering story. This is symptomatic of increasingly provocative behaviour which threatens to undermine public faith in our justice system.

However, the media does not exist as a homogenous body. Despite instances of ill informed articles, attention grabbing headlines or reporters’ illegal behaviour, the original motivation for a free press - that of an independent voice to question the decisions of authority - still stands, and becomes ever more important in the face of increasing numbers of privatised prisons driven by profit, or proposals such as Closed Material Proceedings. In fact, the media has an unique capacity to both seek out miscarriages of justice and to publicise them, giving a voice to some of the most vulnerable and disassociated members of our society, such as young people in the justice system.

While some headlines scream of the leniencies afforded prisoners, Alan White’s article, ‘The brutality of the shadow state: the use of force on teenagers in custody’[9], is in direct contrast. Instead of deploying sweeping generalisations and one-line sound bites, he details the physical violence suffered by thousands of young people in Secure Training Centres over the past decade through sensitive examples of a few individuals. White laments that very few are bringing claims of abuse following the decision in Children’s Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) v Secretary of State for Justice[10] that this mistreatment was against the law - the victims simply aren’t aware, he suggests, that the abuse they suffered was illegal. However, Mr Justice Foskett noted in the judgment of CRAE that ‘it probably requires just one former detainee… to pursue a well-publicised claim and others will be alerted to the potential of pursuing matters’[11].

Equally, the failure of the Youth Justice Board to keep its promise that routine strip-searching of incarcerated children would stop has been widely reported[12]. Articles detail how over 43,000 strip-searches have been carried out in the past 21 months (on occasion through force) with flagrant disregard to that promise, and include calls to Ministers to address this pressing issue[13]. Manifest injustices can regularly take place in our society, but the press can offer a voice – or a headline – to help reach the right people, be that other victims, or Ministers who can enact real and lasting change.

One such ‘well-publicised claim’ initiated the Jimmy Savile affair. The report on the accusations, jointly authored by the Metropolitan Police Service and the NSPCC, has been titled ‘Giving Victims a Voice.’[14] However, it is the media, rather than the police, who have achieved this: the copious headlines and column inches devoted to the story prompted hundreds of childhood victims to speak out upon learning that they were not the only one to have suffered.

Ironically, instead of offering victims a ‘voice,’ reports suggest that the police even warned individuals against publicising their stories, threatening they would become the subject of unwanted media attention[15]. In exposing the police’s lack of professionalism, however, journalists drew attention to one of the press’s own flaws, since the jewel in the media’s crown - its ability to analyse a subject in close detail - can also act as one of its greatest hindrances not only for suspects, but for victims too.

Individual reporters have taken some unforgivable decisions in their pursuit for ‘truth,’ and media - particularly in the era of the 24-hour breaking news cycle - can be dangerous. Conversely, the press can scrutinise and expose instances when authorities offer us misleading information, or even no information at all: they have the capacity to hold them to account. They can also provide a forum for those who may not otherwise be heard (including those whose claim does not involve a celebrity) to convey and receive news.

Without this public mode of questioning, opportunities to effect change in our justice system would be limited indeed. These exchanges of information 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.

OurKingdom publishes the winners of the John Howard Essay Prize 2013 in association with the Howard League for Penal Reform and Hacked Off. The competition was judged by the Guardian's Eric Allison. Prizes will be presented at the Howard League's National Student Conference on 20 November 2013. 



Allison, Eric, ’43,000 strip searches carried out on children as young as 12,’ The Guardian, 3 March 2013. Accessed 3 March 2013. ‘Allison, 2013.’

Clemence, Hollie, ‘Thousands of strip searches on children in custody’, The Sunday Times, 3 March 2013. Accessed 3 March 2013. ‘Clemence, 2013.’

Doyle, Jack, ‘Now you pay for prison parties: Tory Minister says taxpayer must fund balls and comedy workshops for criminals,’ The Daily Mail, 23 July 2010. Accessed 3 March 2013. ‘Doyle, 2010.’

France, Anthony, and Morgan, Tom, ‘Savile abused dying child, 11, at Great Ormond Street,’ The Sun, 12 January 2013. Accessed 13 March 2013. ‘France, 2013.’

Gray, David, and Watt, Peter, ‘Giving Victims a Voice.’ First published 11 January 2013: can be accessed here: Accessed 13 March 2013. ‘Gray, 2013.’

Halliday, Josh and Siddique, Haroon, ‘Jimmy Savile police “reluctant to investigate because of celebrity status”,’ The Guardian, 12 March 2013.  Accessed 14 March 2013. ‘Halliday, 2013.’

Lazzeri, Antonella, ‘Inhuman Rights’, The Sun, 10 February 2013, Accessed 3 March, 2013. ‘Lazzeri, 2013.’

NB The online version of this article has since been altered to read ‘Now court could let fiends like him prey on your children’.

Lord Justice Leveson, ‘The Leveson Report,’ Accessed 3 March 2013. ‘Leveson 2012.’

Littlejohn, Richard, ‘Tough childhood? Get out of jail free’, The Daily Mail, 17 September 2012. Accessed 28 February 2013. ‘Littlejohns, 2012.’

Plunkett, John, ‘Jim Davidson denies wrongdoing following arrest’, 10 January 2013, Accessed 13 March 2013.

White, Alan, ‘The brutality of the shadow state: the use of force on teenagers in custody’, The New Statesman, 28 February 2013. Accessed 28 February 2013. ‘White, 2013.’

CRAE v Secretary of State for Justice [2012] EWHC 8

Flood v Times Newspapers Limited [2012] UKSC 11

‘Letters: strip-searches and human rights’, The Guardian, 5 March 2013. Accessed 13 March 2013. ‘Letters, 2013.’

‘MailOnline, the world’s number one: we’re the biggest newspaper website with 45.348 million unique users,’ The Daily Mail, 27 January 2012. Accessed 1 March 2013. ‘Mail 2012.’

‘Ten questions posed by Vicky Pryce jury,’ BBC News Online, 20 February, 2013. ‘BBC 2013.’ Accessed 13 March 2013. ‘BBC, 2013.’

‘Vicky Pryce: I feared jail over Chris Huhne speeding case,’ The Metro, 20 May 2011. Accessed 14 March 2013. ‘Metro, 2013.’


[1] See Flood v Times Newspapers [2012] UKSC 11 for recent judicial confirmation of the Reynolds principles.

[2] Leveson, 2012.

[3] Doyle, 2010.

[4] Littlejohn, 2012.

[5] Mail, 2012.

[6] BBC, 2013.

[7] Metro, 2011.

[8] Lazzeri, 2013.

[9] White, 2013.

[10] CRAE v Secretary of State for Justice [2012] EWHC 8.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Clemence, 2013, and Allison, 2013.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Gray, 2013.

[15] Halliday, 2013, and France, 2013


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