The relationship between the press and the justice system

The relationship between the press and the criminal justice system in England and Wales has been an issue of great debate for many years. The press plays a vital role in the criminal justice system, acting as a watchdog for the public and reporting on important cases and legislation. However, the media’s approach to reporting on “hot button” cases and legislation has been criticized for being sensationalist and biased. In this article, Benjamin Knight will show the media’s approach to reporting on criminal justice can impact public perception and how it is leveraged by incumbent governments to garner favour with reactionary elements of the electorate.

Benjamin Knight

The Press and the Criminal Justice System

The press has long been an important actor in the criminal justice system in England and Wales. Journalists play a critical role in reporting on court cases, providing the public with information on the legal system and the outcomes of trials. The media also acts as a watchdog, holding the justice system accountable and reporting on instances of injustice or corruption.

However, the media’s approach to reporting on criminal justice has been a topic of controversy amongst lawyers because of perceived bias (e.g., reporting charging decisions, first appearances, prosecution testimony… but almost never reporting acquittals). Additionally, in some cases, journalists have been accused of being overly sensationalist, focusing on salacious details and sensationalizing cases in order to attract readership. This approach can lead to misreporting and a skewed perception of the criminal justice system. Journalists are sometimes seen as chasing the click-bait and missing the point of the cases on which they report.

One example of sensationalist reporting in the criminal justice system was the coverage of the murder of Stephen Lawrence. Lawrence was a black teenager who was murdered in a racist attack in 1993. The case received extensive media coverage, with newspapers reporting on the police investigation and the trial of the suspects. However, the media’s coverage of the case was criticized for being sensationalist and biased. Some newspapers focused on the fact that Lawrence was a “model student” and “black achiever,” implying that his murder was even more tragic because he was an exceptional young man. Others reported on the suspects’ alleged links to far-right organizations and their previous criminal records, painting them as dangerous and violent individuals and linking the murder to BNP activity in the area. Other papers even made insinuations as to what Stephen Lawrence might have been “involved in”; implying that he was in some part responsible for his death. Others (the Daily Mail) ran with an editorial that seems unthinkable in 2023, declaring that: “Racism is abominable…but is there not also something contemptible about professional protestors who capitalise on grief to fuel confrontation?”. It is unthinkable until you remember that the same publication has spent the past 12 months effectively saying that “the destruction of the environment is terrible…but oh! The protesters!”

Newspaper Stand - The press and the justice system
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Sensationalism and Hot Button Cases

The media’s approach to reporting on “hot button” cases, such as those involving terrorism or sexual assault, has also been criticized for being sensationalist. In some cases, journalists have been accused of focusing on salacious details and ignoring important legal issues, in order to obtain those all-important clicks.

One example of this was the media’s coverage of the trial of Rolf Harris. Harris was a popular television personality who was convicted of a number of sexual offenses in 2014. The media’s coverage of the trial was criticized for being sensationalist and focusing on Harris’s celebrity status, rather than the legal issues at hand. Some newspapers reported on the details of Harris’s private life, including his extramarital affairs and his use of drugs. This approach was seen as problematic, as it detracted from the seriousness of the crimes of which he was accused. His victims became tertiary to those peripheral matters. Moreover, the reporting of those examples of “non-conviction bad character” (as lawyers may think of it) was a threat to the safety of proceedings. Jurors are not locked away from the outside world in England and Wales. They read the A-boards outside WH Smiths on their way to the courts.

There are countless examples of nationally or locally prominent cases where the coverage has been problematic, loaded, skewed, inaccurate, and misleading. Occasionally, the trial judge will have to direct juries to ignore what they may have read or heard in the press. Not just the standard direction received by all jurors but a specific reminder of their duties. One that would not have been needed if the media had kept to the facts of the case and not sought to dramatise the proceedings with their ‘artistic licence’.

The Impact of Sensationalism on Public Perception

The media’s approach to reporting on criminal justice issues can have a significant impact on wider public perception. When journalists focus on salacious details and ignore important legal issues, it can result in a skewed perception of the entire of the criminal justice system. This can lead to public distrust and a lack of confidence in the legal system. In addition, sensationalist reporting can contribute to public anxiety and fear, particularly in cases involving terrorism or violent crime.

For example, the media’s coverage of the terrorist attacks in London in 2017 was criticized for contributing to a sense of panic and fear among the public. The attacks were shocking in and of themselves. They were appalling. That was obvious. But some newspapers used language that was seen as inflammatory and potentially obstructive to the serious and forensic process of having fair trials and safe convictions of those responsible. Some described the attacks as a “massacre” and “slaughter.” This type of reporting can contribute to a sense of anxiety and fear among the public, which can have a negative impact on community cohesion.

Knife crime amongst teens has been on the increase for a decade or more in England and Wales. It has been politicised by countless politicians, even figuring in the inflammatory speeches of Donald Trump, during his presidency of the United States. Some may say that covering that increase is important because it shines a light on policing needs and the need for caution by the public. However, a decade ago, when studies by multiple local charities and community groups looked into the reality versus the perception of youths carrying knives, a pattern emerged that many youths said that they were carrying a knife for protection but, when asked to prove it, a very significant percentage admitted that they did not have a knife but would say that they did because everybody else probably had them. One of the main reasons for them thinking this was that they see the same news output as the rest of us. That coverage, even then, sought to compel us all to view teens as all carrying knives with a grim and deadly intent. When those same communities looked into the problem more recently, that reporting had resulted in far more actual knives being carried as a matter of routine. To give a local example, see this article by the Manchester Evening News.

One might wonder: is the press there to report on problems and proceedings or is it there to drum-up fear, suspicion, prejudice, and bias? What drives the salaciousness of their tone? The answer to the latter question is clicks and ad revenue.

Sensationalism and Government Policy

The media’s approach to reporting on criminal justice issues can also be leveraged by incumbent governments to garner favour with reactionary elements of the electorate. In some cases, governments have used sensationalist reporting to support their policy agenda, particularly in crime and immigration.

For example, in the early 2000s, the Labour government under Tony Blair introduced a number of measures aimed at cracking down on crime and anti-social behaviour. You may recall the “Respect Agenda”, much beloved of former Salford MP, Hazel Blears. The government’s policies were supported by sensationalist reporting in the media, with newspapers often reporting on high-profile cases of violent crime and anti-social behaviour. This type of reporting helped to create a sense of public anxiety and fear around crime, which in turn supported the government’s policy agenda. Every time there was an incident of violence or anti-social behaviour, there was a government MP ready to say that the Respect Agenda would cure all. There was an opposition MP ready to scream that the draconian (and wholly successful) raft of powers was “not enough”. Both sides ignored that most ASB was linked to the economy, to socioeconomics, and to a burgeoning breakdown in trust between communities and police. Criminalising children was collateral damage to a political race to the bottom.

BBC Statistics on hate crime - The press and the justice system
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Similarly, the Conservative government under Theresa May used sensationalist reporting to support its policy agenda on immigration. The government’s policies, including a crackdown on illegal immigration and a reduction in the number of immigrants coming to the UK, were supported by sensationalist reporting in the media. Newspapers often reported on cases of illegal immigration and the negative impact of immigration on local communities. This type of reporting helped to create a sense of public anxiety and fear around immigration, which in turn supported the government’s policy agenda. You may remember that famous speech about the “man pleading ‘huuuman riiiights’ to stay in the UK because he had a cat”. You may not recall that the example proudly trumpeted by May as something up with which she would not put… was nonsense and fundamentally untrue. She took a throw-away bit of humour from an overworked immigration judge and turned it into a dog-whistle (cat-whistle?) for a rabid right-wing press. And the left’s response was to shout that it would be tougher, better, stronger and so on.

What resulted was a path to a Labour government creating more criminal offences than any government in recent memory – most of which were reiterations of existing offences which simply needed enforcement. Then a Con-Dem government that was pleased to put a new frock on existing powers for police and ‘rights for householders’. Then a series of Conservative governments who have literally endorsed breaking the law (‘in a specific and limited way’), actually broken the law (with covid-related penalties for government ministers), and legislating to make England and Wales a country where protesting, if it might cause delays to businesses or too much noise, is illegal and where no parliamentary scrutiny is required to clamp down yet harder.

Real life consequences

Reporting on justice issues is a serious matter. Reporting can impact upon trials yet to come, communities already in a poor state, and the broader direction of political ambitions. If a government wants to garner support for something that most would think unfair, it rolls out an MP to say something inflammatory to test the water. The neo-populist party trick of claiming that they are “just asking questions” is now a political trope. This can be seen as a cynical manipulation of the media and can have a negative impact on community cohesion. It can also lead to deaths. Pushing the marginalised over the edge is a very real consequence to the symbiotic relationship between government and press. We are already seeing the language of 1980s section 28 “debate” leaping into similar “debate” around trans people. A very sad chapter of our history is repeating itself and many of those who suffered in the 1980s are being persuaded to deliver that same brutality to an overwhelmingly victimised and marginalised section of society. Even writing those two sentences will likely result in abuse online as it does when broadcasters attempt to provide some balanced or careful airing of the discussion. And a voice or example will be found from both “sides” who will represent the most aggressive and outlandish of the proponents of each “team”.

Mermaids Illustration of Headlines about trans people - The press and the justice systemBy way of another example, a study by the University of Leicester found that media coverage of the 2011 riots in England was characterized by negative stereotypes of young people, particularly young people from ethnic minority backgrounds. The study found that the media’s portrayal of young people contributed to a climate of fear and hostility towards young people, and may have contributed to an increase in hate crime.

Similarly, a study by the monitoring group Tell MAMA found that negative media coverage of Islam and Muslims was associated with an increase in hate crime. The study found that media coverage of terrorism and extremism often portrayed all Muslims as a homogenous group, and contributed to negative attitudes towards Muslims.

Apathy

Sensationalist reporting may contribute to political apathy by creating a sense of hopelessness or resignation among the public. When the media focuses on extreme or sensationalist cases, it can create the impression that the criminal justice system is broken or ineffective, and that there is little that can be done to address the problem. This can lead to a sense of political apathy or disengagement, as people may feel that there is little point in engaging with the political process.

If you are unsure about the rise of political apathy, have a think about how much more often you have heard the lament, “politicians are all the same” and just found yourself sighing and nodding. The problem with that is that political apathy is what allows governments to act as they please. It allows your rights to be eroded. It allows the greater good to be sacrificed to the benefit of the powerful few.

While you are incredulous about the pitiful sentence passed upon some ne’er-do-well about whom you know nothing other than that gleaned from a couple of lines from a judge and from a police spokesperson, you miss the falling numbers of police, the closure of countless courts, the decimation of the criminal Bar, the legal aid deserts caused by solicitors firms going extinct due to lack of income, and the list goes on.

Conclusion

Overall, it is important that journalists approach criminal justice issues with sensitivity and accuracy, focusing on the legal issues at hand and avoiding sensationalism. A handful of dedicated court reporters still do this. Those reporters help to ensure that the public has a balanced and accurate understanding of the criminal justice system, and will help to promote public trust and confidence in the legal system. On the other hand, many churn out clichés and hyperbole in the hope of getting you angry enough to hit “Share via Facebook” or to start a thread on Twitter. Engagement (as it is called in the industry) means enrichment. Clicks mean cash.

The truth in newspapers - The press and the justice system
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I suppose this amounts to a plea to think before you click. If a headline seems to be telling you to get angry, why not look elsewhere? If you are presented with a one-sided presentation that is full of trigger words, question what the writer is hoping to achieve. If the case isn’t over, consider that the tiny snapshot you are being spoon-fed is just that – it is unreliable. If you see people being referred to in a way that makes them sound less than human, turn your back on the person (or algorithm) that has written those words.

If you are unhappy with the justice system, listen to those who work within it and not to the politicians or frothy-mouthed pundits on talk radio. Then, by all means get angry – but direct it at those who have the power to change it to a system that works more fairly and that secures longer-term outcomes that benefit all of society. Look for the proper explanations as to why a case has reached the conclusion it has reached. Learn about the Parole Board and the very difficult task it has. In short, please think carefully about who and what you believe – and why there are those who seek to distract you from the systemic functions and failings.

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