Our Tabloid and Social Media Jury System

The neo-medieval pile of the Royal Courts of J...
The Royal Courts of Justice

I’m starting to question the capability of our legal system and I’m not alone. In our fast-moving and open digital age; is it still able to provide totally fair and unbiased trials any more?

Our legal system is still (arguably) one of the best in the world, despite its many faults however; a suspected offender is still rightly innocent until proven guilty. How long that remains to be the case in this ‘connected’ world is worryingly becoming questionable?

Earlier this month at the University of Kent Attorney General The Rt. Hon. Dominic Grieve QC MP spoke of the challenges to jury trial posed by the internet (see here).

In addition to the internet and the powerful influences of social media platforms, it is increasingly difficult for an ‘alleged’ offender to feel confident they will receive a fair trial, this is often due to the methods of our mainstream media. A feeling which is exacerbated when the suspect possess any so-called ‘celebrity’ status or, mostly thanks to the emotive media machine, are unfortunate in gaining public notoriety because of the so-called reported ‘facts’ of the alleged offence.

This week’s exclusive revelations from the media about a popular TV actor are perhaps another case in point.

Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell, who plays garage boss Kevin Webster in the TV soap, has been charged with child sex offences…(huffingtonpost.co.uk)

Le Vell (real name Turner) was first arrested in September 2011 and questioned over alleged child sex offences, but the matter was subsequently dropped by the CPS. Now, Alison Levitt, QC, principal legal adviser to the Director of Public Prosecutions, has reviewed the file of ‘evidence’ and decided that, the previous decision not to prosecute was wrong.

…there is sufficient evidence and it is in the public interest to charge Michael Robert Turner with a number of sexual offences…(Alison Levitt QC)

As yet I haven’t read any reports which suggest there is any ‘new’ evidence in the above case therefore, the cynic inside me wants to ask; if it wasn’t in the public interest to proceeed then, why is it now? Perhaps the original decision was made because, ‘there was no realistic expectation of a conviction’? Or perhaps worryingly, in light of the immense public opinion and media interest about the Jimmy Savile scandal was the thought process more like – we better have a go at this now in case it comes back to bite us later?

Already the ‘no smoke without fire’ brigade are out in force suggesting the CPS actions show the allogations must have been right after all, mustn’t they?

Whatever the eventual outcome for Turner his life and erstwhile popularity are already taking a severe beeting, irrespective of any subsequent proof of guilt and conviction. I don’t condone any of the alledged offences however; I’m prepared to wait for the court case outcome before offering comment about the suspect. These types of issue all make the weeks news about a call for anonymity for alleged sex case offenders relatively unsurprising, at least to me.

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales, said defendants should get the same right to anonymity as complainants…(bbc.co.uk)

With the predominant lynch-mob mentality that often prevails amongst many users of Twitter and Facebook, I can fully understand the thought process that brought Maura McGowan to her conclusion. She has bravely placed her head on the chopping block of (media engineered) public opinion. At the risk of making like Dobbin and forming a constituent part of your next supermarket ready-meal, I’m happy to place my napper under the same clever of thought and opinion.

Until they have been proven to have done something as awful as this, I think there is a strong argument in cases of this sort – because they carry such stigma with them – to maintain the defendant’s anonymity…(Maura McGowan QC)

Barristers at 2 Bedford Row are (rightly) held in high regard; the Chambers are at the pinnacle of the UK legal game and the opinion of their team members is wholly worthy of respect. Whether or not you agree with that opinion, on what is an extremely emotive subject (hence the level of media interest), is by its very nature a whole different ball game.

Capability, experience, legal/social knowledge and business acumen not without standing, McGowan offers up valid arguments in support of her call. We don’t question the right to anonymity for victims, despite proven cases of malicious and false allegations in the past, why therefore do we question that right for an ‘alleged’ offender? When I say ‘proven’ I mean in a court of law, despite the final opinion of prosecution or defence counsel.

There are so many barriers to victims reporting sexual violence… Hiding the name of their perpetrator is just one more way to victimise victims further…(Maura McGowan QC)

Not without regard to the rights of both victims and suspects, I’m also of the opinion that; mainly due to pre-trial media methodology, along with viewpoints formulated from social media hysteria (often based upon less than factual information), we actually run the risk of destroying one of the fairest legal systems in the world. All this is before you start to consider the risks and dangers of self-inflicted fatalities.

The family of a violin teacher believed to have taken her life during the trial of a man who sexually abused her have said “the court system let her down.” Frances Andrade was found dead after giving evidence…(bbc.co.uk)

Sad as any death is, long-term mental illness and suicides are not uncommon in cases such as these, especially with such high levels of implied (or justified) guilt and/or stigmatism, on both sides of the legal argument.

Unless we want a legal system based upon mob-rule, one that is in turn formulated and directed by bigots, zealots and fanatical idealists, perhaps we need to do something to try and curb the inherent public craving for salacious innuendo and shocking opinion?

As long as that’s what we apparently want our media methodology will continue to fuel that desire.