Robin Brown

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When the public interest and media interest coincide

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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.

Written by Robin Brown

March 4th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Crowdsourcing win! Media encourages public to out Jon Venables

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The media is baying for details about exactly why Jon Venables has been locked up again, several years after he was released from prison, where he served nine years with Robert Thompson for the murder of James Bulger.

I don’t have any connection to the sorry affair, apart from reading the challenging As if – a superb account of the case by Blake Morrison – and living in Liverpool.

But I do feel a deep ambivalence about attitudes towards the case, especially those pursued by the media.

This has been reignited today with the news that Venables has been returned to prison for unspecified breaches of his parole licence. The media is barred from reporting what Venables has done and may not even seek to discover why, such is the blackout on information relating to the two boys’ new identities.

Various figures in the media are outraged that they cannot report these details, arguing that it is in the public interest to make them known.

I’m unclear on exactly why they believe this to be the case, beyond the principle of the matter. There are some important questions to be asked about the unprecedented nature of the anonymity afforded to the two, but I don’t think this is the best time to ask them.

It seems likely that the case will generate a lot of publicity, which media outlets tend to like. Further, it seems not unreasonable to suggest that the reasons many editors want the Venables details made public are rather less high-minded one that the principle of publicity as part of the judicial process.

To my mind any further details that are released about Venables, even down to exactly why he’s been banged up, make it more likely that he is IDed. When that happens, it’s only a matter of time before Venables is attacked, and possibly killed.

The alternative is that the probation services, police, judiciary and Home Office go through the process of creating a whole new identity for Venables.

I don’t think either of these options are in the public interest, and I don’t believe the notional trade-off – that public interest is satisfied – is worth it on balance.

Nevertheless, the media has blown its top and adopted its usual ‘pressure grows’ and ‘speculation is rife’ echo-chamber reporting on the issue in an effort to get at the details.

But it’s adopted a new technique too. The media is, in no uncertain terms, banned from going anywhere near the case so, in the case of Sky, appears to be actively encouraging the public to do its work for them.

Now, how long before a fellow inmate guesses who’s next to him in the dinner queue and fronts him up?

And whips out a mobile phone and takes a snap and makes a call and…you get the picture, or at least the Sun will.

Or somebody nicks the custody photograph, like they did with Fred West, and flogs it?

Venables was supposedly banged up again sometime in the past 10 days, along with around a thousand new prisoners.

Shouldn’t be difficult to identify a 27-year-old with a hint of a Scouse accent and a chip on his shoulder.

It could earn you more than your next armed robbery. And no risk of getting shot.

So there you have it – get a snap of Venables to the Sun and you could be rich. If you’re at a loss as to how to do this look at what happened with Fred West, or whip out your camera phone should you come across a new cellmate with a scouse accent in his late 20s.

It’s hard to have much sympathy for Venables given his track record, maybe he’s brought this on himself.

But ultimately the equation is a simple one. The more details about Venables that come to light, the more likely it is someone sticks a knife in him. I don’t see how that’s in the pubic interest either.

Written by Robin Brown

March 3rd, 2010 at 7:06 pm

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