When the public interest and media interest coincide

It was with no sense of satisfaction today that I scanned the morning’s front pages to a sea of blurry Jon Venables shots, but it was proof that the tabloids are scenting blood over the man’s return to prison.

The Mirror reports that Venables has been returned to prison for fighting at work and that he has been struggling with drug use for some time – shamefully for a Labour paper relegating the death of Michael Foot to a masthead boxout – and apparently breaking the worldwide injunction that prohibits any reporting on Venables or Robert Thompson.

The details, vague though they are, are clearly sufficient to allow dozens of people to confidently guess Venables’ assumed identity – which obviously poses significant problems for Venables, the probation service, the police, prisons, the Ministry of Justice and dozens of other auxiliary services.

This is presumably why Jack Straw was so determined not to allow this to come to light. At best, Venables requires a whole new identity and cover story somewhere else in the country, or spends the rest of his life in prison with a round-the-clock guard. Or, more simply, someone murders him.

I’ve been considering how the public interest has been served by these revelations coming to light. In what way are we enlightened, I wonder. What’s the benefit to society in these details being brought to light?

It’s fascinating trying to watch the newspapers maintain some sort of moral high ground on this issue while exploiting the grief of Denise Fergus to sell some more papers.

In today’s Sun, we’re told of the ‘Bulger Case Outrage’? What ‘outrage’ is that exactly? The manufactured outrage of tabloid editors denied the opportunity to make another meal of a genuine human tragedy?

It’s an unfortunate – or is fortunate? – coincidence that the outing of criminals as part of serving the greater good dovetails so smoothly with the media imperative to sell copy.

Who’s to say what the real reason behind the Venables muck-raking is? Every newspaper editor will point to the former, explain that it is a duty of the media to reassure society. Whichever way you paint it I can’t see the moral justification in the howls of anger over the government’s refusal to cave in to the papers.

But it won’t stop here – this story has legs now, and we all like to know how a story ends. I’ll save you the bother of actually buying these papers.

In a few days time, following a tidal wave on unrelenting pressure from the papers, reflected and intensified by other mainstream media, spread far and wide by social media, which will in turn be re-reported by the tabloids, people will start coming forward with stories to sell.

Some time next week one of the papers – probably the Sun – will get recent pictures of Venables and decide, on balance, that the legal risk is worth taking, arguing that to do so is in the public interest. Then the rest will follow suit.

The public interest will have been served. Paper sales and website traffic will increase accordingly. Some hack will win a self-congratulatory ‘Scoop of the Year’ award.

It remains to be seen what happens to Venables. At best, a life of looking over his shoulder. At worst… well, we know the worst.

I genuinely wonder if, at any point, those in the media demanding to know these details have ever thought beyond the scope of ‘public interest’ and considered the high stakes of this game. That convenient public interest defence can cover a multitude of sins.

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