media


The News of the World, a Sunday tabloid, campaigned to allow parents to find out where paedophiles live, the so-called Sarah’s Law. Sarah Payne was a girl who was murdered by a previously convicted paedophile. The campaign has been partially successful and pilots are underway around the country. The police feared vigilantism. This has not happened because the scope of the scheme has been restricted to enquiring about specific individuals who have contact with one’s children. It is not an open list of paedophiles. The police carry out a risk assessment before deciding to respond.

There is a balance between public protection and the right to privacy. The risk of a child being snatched is greater in the vicinity of paedophiles. Even if the risk is low, many parents would like to know if there is a specific risk. Meanwhile society wants to rehabilitate the low-risk convicted paedophiles so they can rebuild their lives and put their past behind them. In these circumstances, the right to privacy gives way to the need for public protection. The right to privacy is surrendered upon conviction.

The mother behind the campaign, Sarah Payne, has been recognised for her extraordinary achievement in bringing about greater openness in hereunto private information. She has received an honour from the Queen. She has also recently become our first Victim’s Champion and will speak up for victims who are now at the centre of the criminal justice system. This new role raises a fundamental constitutional issue.

Emphasising victimhood marks a further departure away from justice for defendants. Currently, Victim Impact Statements are read out at the end of a trial prior to sentencing which capture the sorrowful nature of the offence. It is for the judge to decide on sentencing bearing in mind all aspects of the case. Under our legal system the sentencing is based primarily upon culpability, not on consequence. This is why death by driving cases cause so much anguish. A single moment’s inattention is not punished with life imprisonment. An eloquent impact statement should not lead to a more severe penalty than one where the family does not prepare a statement.

There is a further concern if the Victim’s Champion is also a progenitor of an eponymous law. To what extent is the Victim’s Champion pursuing a personal agenda? If the country is to introduce such a role, it should be defined in an objective way. What is meant by a victim? Who can speak for victims? What do victims need? How can the court experience be improved? What happens if the defendant is found Not Guilty? A Home Office Minister should answer these questions properly and after a due political process. Fundamental questions should not be left to a celebrated victim with a strong media presence.

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The government is placing victims and witnesses at the “centre” of the criminal justice system. The Law Reform, Victims and Witnesses Act will enable anonymity of victims and witnesses in court. Appearing in court is scary enough for most people. Those who are intimidated or vulnerable would be spared having to testify in person against the object of their fears. If more people are prepared to stand up in court, there will be more convictions. This is part of the government agenda to bring more offences to justice, reflecting public sentiment.

The inherent contradiction in this approach is that we also need to ensure that the defendant has a fair trial. It is essential that the defendant should know what he or she is accused of and who the witnesses are. A witness who is granted anonymity presents two types of problem. Firstly, the fact that special measures have been taken will indicate to the jurors that the defendant is regarded as intimidating. Secondly, the possibility of challenging the evidence is restricted. Of course, we can get more convictions if we are prepared to compromise on fairness, but is this what society really wants?

Sean Hodgson has just been released after 27 years in jail for a murder that he did not commit. He was not eligible for parole since it is conditional upon an admission of guilt. He refused to admit guilt on the not unreasonable grounds that he did not commit the crime. Even though he suffered from mental health problems, he maintained his integrity and dignity.

These “miscarriages of justice” always command considerable media interest reflecting the genuine public concern that the criminal justice system should be reliably accurate in identifying perpetrators. The fact that Hodgson had originally confessed to the crime, and provided details to the police which were not generally known, demonstrates why the original conviction was beyond reasonable doubt. The conviction has now been deemed unsafe following a review of the DNA evidence. This evidence could have been reviewed over the years, but never was. It took a determined new defence solicitor, instructed following an advert in the prison newspaper, to track it down. What this shows is the vital role of the defence. The rest of the criminal justice system has little incentive to uncover exculpatory material unless prompted.

The Oxford Dictionary of Modern English defines a victim as a person injured or killed as a result of an event or circumstance. Judging by his fragile state of health as he emerged down the steps of the Court of Appeal, the released man is a victim. He will be entitled to financial compensation although nothing can make up for his loss of freedom and health. The question we have to confront is whether we want to have more Sean Hodgsons in the future – people who will be convicted on the testimony of anonymous witnesses. The criminal justice system should accurately separate out the guilty from the innocent. Stacking the odds against some defendants is going to increase the number of wrongful convictions.

How a defendant accused of serious crimes is treated at court reflects the basic moral principles of a society. There are two important aspects of the trial of Josef Fritzl in Austria – its transparency and its fairness. Both of these principles are tested to the limit.

The reporters in the Fritzl trial can only stay for part of the proceedings. The court provides edited extracts from the case at the end of each day. As a result, the public cannot find out exactly what happened in that dark dungeon, except as disclosed by the court. There appear to be two reasons for restricting the journalistic reporting from the court. Firstly, his grandchildren have to be protected from public intrusion. Secondly, the court did not want the trial to turn into an exercise in voyeurism. Whilst these concerns are understandable, there are other solutions which do less damage to justice. The children involved have already been given new identities. It is not the trial alone which brought them publicity. The fear about voyeurism is misplaced – the issues raised by the case are of wider public concern both nationally and internationally. The press reporting is not so much salacious as horrified.

The story of incestuous family incarceration is so shocking that any civilised society needs to ensure that it cannot happen again. The trial is of only one man, but the public will be concerned about the role that the authorities may have played. The perception is that Austrian society still has too many institutions that cannot be questioned. What were social services doing? Surely it was implausible that so many babies could appear from a daughter who has run away? Maybe the authorities do have something to hide. The best way of counteracting this perception is to bring all the facts into the open. Furthermore, the public needs to understand how a determined and devious character like this can develop. It is essential to get the full story from the protagonists – the defendant and the victim (“victim” rather than “alleged victim” because Fritzl has pleaded guilty to most counts). There is no substitute for their own words.

Fritzl is termed the “Incest Monster” by the Austrian press. Whether this description prejudices the outcome is unlikely since the judge will have seen the material beforehand in a less emotional setting. It is perhaps easier for a professional judge to deal with this media claims than it is for lay members of a jury. Meanwhile, throughout this process, the defence attorney has complained that he has been vilified for representing Fritzl and threats have been made to his life. His public appeal to treat Fritzl as a man and not as a monster has fallen on deaf ears. Fritzl is a man who acted as a conventional father for his upstairs family whilst treating his dungeon family despicably. He has not tried to evade conviction by claiming mental illness. The hardest thing to accept is that Fritzl is a man not a monster, albeit a man of moral contradictions.

The independent documentary film, the Age of Stupid, is about climate change and how our developed societies allowed the planet to be ruined in a period of collective stupidity. It follows a number of individuals in different parts of the world – USA, England, France, Nigeria and India – and shows their responses in intimate profiles. A narrator from the future reflects upon clear warning signs and contrasts these with the plausible deniability of the consequences of unbridled carbon fuel burning.

The film’s director, Franny Armstrong, has developed a reputation for her radical approach to political subject matter including the story of McLibel, the longest trial in British history which started when the fast food chain sued some leafletters. Her latest film does not disappoint in this respect. It raises awareness of a wide range of environmental issues and placing these in a personal context, the film is a powerful refresher on what is at stake.

Where the film fails to convince is in finding remedies. There is a presumption that a sustainable future will be low-carbon, with non-nuclear renewables making up the majority of power generation. We are shown beautiful vistas of the Alps as well as the rolling Cornish countryside. This is presumably before these areas are covered in windfarms and solar panels.

The reality is that too many countries want to bring their populations out of poverty before being prepared to compromise on economic growth. Furthermore, the richest country of all, and the most wasteful of energy, the USA, is never going to accept a reduction in living standards so that India and China can catch up. Carbon rationing will only become a political reality when people can see the effects directly for themselves. The problem is that by the time this point is reached, it is too late to save the world from runaway warming. The conventional economic mechanisms simply do not work to reverse the climate detriment.

Using up the earth’s resources is foolish given the rapid rise in the global population and the growth in consumption per head. This goes to demonstrate that mankind does have a collective suicide urge – which happens to be the subject of Armstrong’s university thesis when she studied zoology at UCL. Are we all to die like the doomed Easter Islanders?

I remain optimistic that a tradable personal carbon allowance can serve as the basis for a solution. Each person would receive say 1000 energy units a month (kilojewels?). They can use these all up on buying energy for themselves or they can sell them to someone else who places more value on them. Ultimately carbon is rationed but those who place more value per unit can trade with those who place less value to their mutual benefit. Maybe people are not so stupid after all.

Why would someone say the opposite of what they mean? The usual explanation is that irony creates an incongruity setting up mockery or humour. It seems a dangerous stratagem if it evinces puzzlement or incredulity in their listener. It can backfire embarrassingly. Yet it prevalent in all cultures to a greater or lesser degree.

The benefits associated with using verbal irony must be significant if they are to outweigh the social risks. Suppose there were a country whose history was characterised by colonial subjugation and famine. The people were powerless but had to find hope. They used the power of the word to achieve three things: transcendence, solidarity and humour.
Irony stresses the absurdity in the contradiction between substance and form. Whatever fate or man would throw at the benighted peasants, they could maintain their dignity. They embraced the world as it might be, not as it was. Their language was of transcendence not of supplication. Furthermore, they wanted to show solidarity with their fellow souls. Given that the overt expression of defiance could be detrimental, it was necessary to have a different way of interpreting language. The simplest code was to reverse the usual meaning . A shared awareness of this doublespeak provides an element of control over the situation and numerous opportunities for humour.

Verbal irony has developed to a refined level amongst the Irish who are famous for their wit and repartee. Irish authors from Jonathan Swift and Laurence Sterne to Samuel Beckett and Oscar Wilde have been masters of irony. Their irony is not just a literary device – it is an essential element to communication in their contemporary culture.
American culture has a more circumscribed role for irony given the need to find a common language for the waves of immigrants speaking different tongues. If verbal irony was ever widespread, it was doused by the dynamics of economic growth and social progress. Yet it is visible in creative media such as The Simpsons which comments brilliantly on the modern world whilst appearing to be a childrens’ cartoon. Where there is social or political stasis, irony will bloom. Why are three Russian policemen travelling in a car? One to read, one to write, and one to monitor the two intellectuals.

The ancients were not allowed to meet face-to-face with their ruler. They would stoop low to show obeisance. Bowing can be quite a sophisticated art when conducted properly. A vestige of this is to be found in the etiquette when encountering the Queen. The practice is being revived in an unexpected manner. Media types tell us that it is now illegal to take photographs of police constables. As the police symbolise State authority, it seems we can no longer look at photographs of our rulers.

The relevant statute is the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008 which makes it an offence to elicit information about a constable which is likely to be useful to a terrorist. Since taking a photograph may be construed as eliciting information, then photographers could find themselves arrested.

Any citizen wary of oppressive government will wonder if this is another example of the State over-reacting to the “terrorist threat”. However, looking more closely at the law, a different story emerges. The latest Act amends an earlier one – the Terrorism Act 2000 – which had already prohibited photography useful for terrorism. The amendment makes it clear that the prohibition includes taking photos of police constables. The logic of the prohibition is as follows:

2000 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism.
2008 Act: Do not take photos useful for terrorism including photos of constables.

The scope of the 2008 Act was already included in the 2000 Act. It was already illegal to take photographs of constables if useful for terrorism. Yet the 2008 Act has generated much ire. People seem to ignore the logic of inclusion. Cognitive psychologist have a name for this – the Inclusion Fallacy.

There are two explanations for the Inclusion Fallacy in the political context: the trigger effect and the short-term memory effect. The first is based on the notion that an underlying grievance needs a trigger to bring it to public attention. Photo-journalists will naturally be keen to ensure that their freedom does not get usurped by the law-makers. They need the trigger to raise it up the political agenda and perhaps deter the government from pursuing even more restrictive policies. The short-term memory effect ignores the past. What counts is the here and now, the latest change. Given that the amendment specifies police constables then, under this view, the government must be tightening up on photographing constables.

Should we be worried? The latest amendment has arguably reduced the likelihood that a photographer would get arrested in normal circumstances. The courts will know that there is an emphasis on protecting members of the security forces and police constables who may be the target of terrorist activity. Crucially, police will need to be reasonable in enforcing the prohibition on photography. Nobody wants tourists outside Buckingham Palace to be arrested. Ironically, it is not prohibited to take a photograph of our Monarch when she fulfilling her public duties.

Australians gave harrowing accounts of how they had survived the recent forest fires which had burned down their homes. They would have to rebuild their lives from scratch. In the emergency, their priorities were clear – to save family, neighbours, pets and animals. What struck me was that several spoke of their regret that they couldn’t save their photographs. Whereas a house could be rebuilt, and animals bred, photographs are irreplaceable. Photographs refresh cherished memories. Without the photographs, many memories would be lost. The memories of loved ones would be dimmed or lost forever.

Photos from the last century are generally on prints. I acquired my first digital camera in 2000. Not only did this make it easier to archive photos on digital storage, it also meant that I took many more photos. Rather than a photograph only being taken on special occasions it meant that all occasions became special. My parents used the famous Kodak Brownie to take pictures on film. We looked forward to when the developed prints would be returned from the chemist in a week or so. Each photo was pored over and discussed. It was the viewing as much as the taking which was special. The sentimental value built up.

Now I have thousands of digital and scanned photos and I struggle to keep them in order. I am therefore pleased with latest version of the Mac photo album software called iPhoto. It lets me classify photos by face in the easiest way imaginable: it suggests names for faces. After a few trials of yes and no, it gets the idea of who’s who and the tagging proceeds smoothly. The photos can also be linked to places. I can revisit a photo itinerary of my life. I enter geographical data manually but even this will be avoided with a GPS camera.

I would not want to lose my photos. I still get worried about whether I have a secure backup. No doubt remote sites like Flickr are of some help. Nor would I want to lose the albums I have created, the photo-histories, the itineraries and the presentations. They are irreplaceable.

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