This article was first published in Solicitors Journal on 9 February 2016 and is reproduced by kind permission.
Pippa Allsop debates the catch 22 situation which sees irresponsible publishers feed the public’s hunger for scandal.
The public furore over the criminal justice system’s inability to posthumously prosecute Lord Janner is an excellent illustration of the undeniable problem of the public’s failure to grasp legal concepts.
The issue is more pertinent in areas such as criminal law, given the more sensationalist and therefore media-friendly themes, but it does of course occur elsewhere, for example in relation to family law topics. In particular, the ongoing trashing of the family justice system for its alleged lack of transparency springs to mind, something which has continued, despite efforts to educate the public, largely due to the wilful ignorance of the media. Ultimately (and unfortunately), sensible reasoning does not sell anywhere near as well as gross embellishment.
The fault sits largely with the media and their mania for reporting salacious stories. However, the fact that this is a circular problem cannot be escaped. We, the public, arguably dictate what the media reports and the angle that is adopted through our morbid curiosities and love of scandal.
The question is, to what extent are the public and the media respectively to blame for this state of general ignorance? Is it our fault for demanding and devouring sensationalism, or the media’s for creating an indulgent feeding frenzy through exaggeration and misinformation? There are, clearly, some media culprits who are much worse than others and who, on many occasions, are downright incompetent and wholly irresponsible in their reporting. Perhaps this situation is one akin to the chicken and the egg, or rather one where both sides are to blame and need to take responsibility accordingly.
Another sometimes alarming product of media distortion is the knee-jerk reactions it has the power to evoke from the government and other organisations cowed by public pressure. In an age where the power of social media is formidable, there are real and increasing concerns whether actions taken by legislators or other bodies in response to misguided outcries are actually the correct ones to make. For example, could indulging the thought of putting a dead man on trial ever be a prudent move for our legal system, or sanity in general?
There is an age-old public enjoyment of proverbially ‘sticking it to the man’, edged with some of the comforting British complaining inherent in our society. However, it is undeniable that this tendency is egged on and even exploited by the media, parts of which appear to have completely abdicated any responsibility for the consequences of their actions in this respect. In an ideal world, there needs to be both increased accountability from the media and a concerted effort from Jo(e) Public to take receive newspaper stories with a pinch of salt. Ultimately, the erosion of public confidence in the law is a serious issue and generally it does us no favours to think the worst of our systems, legal or otherwise, just ‘because’.