Apr 18 2012

Reporting on Trial

The Trial of Norwegian mass-murderer Anders Breivik, who killed, by his own admission, 77 people in a well planned attack, stirred an extensive debate about different aspects of its media coverage. Some commentators have gone as far as to say that Breivik should not be put on trial at all, as it would enable him to publicly make his case and preach his radical right wing ideology. Many objected to giving a racist murderer a platform to preach his ideas.

Sunday Telegraph’s Foreign Correspondent Nick Meo, who reported from the gory scene in July 2011 and returned to Oslo this week to meet the bereaved families, said today in an interview with GRN that the families were concerned that the trial would “turn into a circus”. “There are many like minded radical right wing people in Norway and across Europe,” said Meo, “there’s a worry that Breivik will inspire them”.

Indeed, in the hours that passed ever since the trial began Breivik introduced his fascist-racist ideology, explain that his deed was aimed as a “preventive strike” against his country’s multicultural policies. He accused his victims of “deconstructing” Norway’s traditional cultural identity. He expressed no regret and said he’d do it all over again, given the chance. His defence has is being extensively covered by media vehicles around the world, and journalists are constantly tweeting from the Oslo court as the trial unfolds. Some even protested against the very idea of turning Breivik into a ”celebrity”, as if television exposure of any nature is in itself some kind of a prize.

In an interesting coincidence today, Wednesday 18 April 2012, is the first day in which parts of a trial in the UK is being broadcast on television. In a country where it has not been allowed so far to even take stills photos in court, and where the old tradition of court sketches has been thriving well into the 21st century, this is nothing short of a revolution. Scottish Television STV broadcasts today the sentencing of David Gilroy for the murder of his former mistress Suzanne Pilley, after the Scottish broadcaster was granted permission to record the conclusion to the murder case.

This precedes a new UK legislation allowing courtroom proceedings to be televised, which is expected to be announced in the Queen’s speech next month. The BBC, ITN and Sky News called on Prime Minister David Cameron to push through the legislation in a joint letter sent in February this year.

Arguments against cameras in UK courts, apart from the tendency to adhere to “traditions”, concentrate on the danger of turning courts into an arena of reality TV, and enabling public voyeurism into the lives of victims and defendants alike.

The idea of not only not reporting the Breivik trial, but not holding it at all, is a radical manifestation of the perception according to which public exposure is a prize to its protagonist, more than a question of public interest, and that three democratic values – the right to an open and fair trial, the public’s right to know and the freedom of expression – should all be disregarded in order to prevent Breivik’s abhorrent thoughts from being aired. But those who argue for suppressing the procedure are ignoring the question that keeps coming up as the leading notion in any discussion about journalism today: context.

A criminal trial is a procedure in which the court as an organ of society as a whole expresses its dismay at the alleged acts of a group or individual. Breivik making racist statements in his own defence and attacking his own country for its democracy and tolerance is not the same as Breivik voicing the same idea in a speech to the nation. The very trial is an act in which not only his deeds, but also his justification of them, are being judged, and in all evidence, are to be found criminal and condemnable, and he himself to be found guilty of the murdering of 77 people upon his own admission, supported by endless evidence. The fact that his radical statements are made to justify the murder of 77 of his fellow compatriots, most of them teenagers – a crime which had sent shockwaves of horror across Europe and beyond – is hardly going to give those ideas any credence. If anything, it embodies a public lesson at what kind of heinous and evil deeds such ideas of racism and intolerance might invoke.

Those ideas indeed have supporters in every society, and Breivik’s new fans might get further inspired. But this kind of thoughts are far more dangerous when explored in the darkness of solitary rooms, on neo-fascist websites and without any demonstration of their consequences, than when they are scrutinised in an open court, in the presence of their victims and secondary victims, the bereaved families. They are more harmful when being whispered from mouth to ear and sworn allegiances to in clandestine meetings, then they are when publicly declared harmful and unforgivable by the media and the court of law.

The Nuremberg Trials of 1946 gave the biggest Nazi criminals caught alive an opportunity to defend themselves against the allegations brought against them of crimes against humanity. Thousands of journalists covered the trials, which historically turned into one of the most powerful vehicle for exposing and condemning the crimes of the Nazi regime. Eichmann’s trial in Jerusalem opened a new era as far as the understanding of the horrors of the holocaust were concerned. Criticism has been voiced at both those trials for being “show trials”, but neither has been accused of being responsible for raising support of Nazism due to the fact the defendants were allowed to answer the allegations.

Very few have sympathy to the man Breivik, but the right for open and just trials is not saved for likeable defendants. A society is tested by its treatment of those it finds most objectionable. If Breivik would have been denied a fair and public trial, he could have claimed success in his pledge to undermine democracy in his own homeland.

Another point concerning context has been raised in a debate concerning reporters twitter feeds from court. As Index of Censorship says today, despite the prosecutions explanation: “We don’t want his testimony to be directly broadcast because it needs to be digested after being put in context by media organisations”, many journalists have been tweeting feeds out of Breivik ‘s testimony. The limitations of twitter – 140 characters at a time – naturally prevent the journalists from putting his statements in context. The way Twitter works in turn enables other users to re-tweet the statements and use them to promote their own ideas.

Index reports that reporters dealt with the context question in different ways. Paul Brannan, tweeting for Al-Jazeera English, kept explaining the situation to his readers in tweets like: “*IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER* I am tweeting the evidence directly. I do not vouch for whether what #Breivik is saying is true.” Guardian correspondent Helen Pidd opted not to tweet all Breivik’s comments saying some of them were just

too heartless. She said she will “put it in context in a story at lunchtime” as it “seems irresponsible to just put it out on Twitter unadulterated.”

The growing competition for speed in reporting forces context to chase breathlessly after the succinct reporting enforced by technology. But not many news consumers seem to be happy to confine themselves to skinny uncontextualised feeds. At the end of the day (often, literally) most of us turn to the media we know and trust to make sense of things, be it our favourite evening news channel, the website of our newspaper of choice, or the news wrap on the radio in the car. It seems that in the times of economical concentrated communications, the ability to speak fast and short as events unfold holds within it a journalistic commitment to expand and explain; a picture might be worth a 1000 words, but we are not exempt from saying them, or at least as many of them that are required to give news consumers a bigger picture. Anybody can tweet a quotation out a defendant’s mouth but only professional journalists who do their job well can add the institutional relevant knowledge, the understanding of the procedure and the relevant event history that give a report its real value.

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