The tension in the courtroom vibrates as defence and prosecution deliver their long, dramatic monologues, the suspect cowering in her chair. In five minutes, claims of abuse, betrayal, promiscuity and blackmail are being hurled across the room by lawyers and witnesses. In one night, at least five people in this room have made millions, whilst the country sits at home glued to their TV screens, eating popcorn and gossiping about who’s guilty and who’s not. This is not last week’s episode of CSI, this is our legal system.
The impact of the media on today’s culture and society cannot be underestimated. Simply refer to Watergate, Murdoch or even Princess Diana to understand the wide ranging and hugely determinant ripple effect that follows our need for and addiction to the news, the truth. Although technology and the media have allowed huge advances in our knowledge and awareness of what’s going on in the world, the impact of news coverage online, in print and on television has often been a source of moral and ethical debate.
One of the ways the media has often abused its position within society is by exploiting, often in a sexual way, criminal cases and trials. It is both terrifying and fascinating to step back and consider the incentives and morals behind the reason such a fraction of criminal cases surface on our TV screens. Even more frightening to consider is the possibility that the media has turned our legal system into a reality TV show.
When 15-year-old Megan Stammers ran away from her home in Sussex to Bordeaux with her maths teacher in September 2012, a media frenzy broke out across Britain. Hundreds of thousands of people followed her parents, Martin Stammers and Danielle Wilson on Twitter as they kept an ongoing feed following news of their daughter. Every news station, network and radio broadcaster commented almost hourly during the period of her disappearance. Ultimately, the country was entranced by the search for this teenage girl, so much so that this almost obsessive media coverage resulted in the location and return of Stammers only nine days after her departure. However, was our obsession with this case for ethical reasons? And if we can directly link media attention with Stammers being brought home safely, why isn’t the same media attention being used to help find the children who go missing at a rate of one every three minutes in the UK?
When unravelling this mystery, a number of startling facts begin to surface, namely the soap opera-esque nature of that case. Megan Stammers’ young age immediately created a scandal, as she was not yet legally able to have sex. Add to this the maths teacher, the illicit lover who was old enough to be her father, and multiply this with her being whisked away to France and BANG, you have your typical Eastenders storyline. I am absolutely not belittling the danger, worry and torment that was felt during her disappearance, to do so would be extremely insensitive. However, were we, the public, caught up in the danger or in the scandal? And is it a coincidence that the story line mechanics of this case ‘mysteriously’ pushed it into the media spotlight? I believe this to be thoroughly untrue. And I also believe it is time to lift the lid on media politics, to expose and examine the way in which the media and the public glamourise crime.
It would be naive to expect all criminal cases to be given the same level of media scrutiny. We are talking about a country where 9.1 million crimes were reported in the past year, 532 of which were child abduction cases. However, it is interesting to see how the cases that are picked up on by national newspapers and broadcasters affect our perception of crime, and furthermore, how influential the news can be in shaping public opinion and understanding.
In May 2011, America was hooked by the six-week Casey Anthony trial that was covered to the point of over-exposure by thousands of media outlets across the nation. Mother Casey was being tried with the abduction of her two-year-old daughter Caylee Anthony after she had been missing for 31 days without police notification. When Caylee’s skeletal remains were discovered buried in a nearby forest, the media spotlight hit the Anthony family full force. Although in 2011 nearly 800,000 children under the age of 18 went missing in the US, 200,000 of those children believed to have been abducted by family members, it was this particular case which would then go on to be dubbed the ‘social media trial of the century’ by Time Magazine.
Why this case? Why this woman? You do not have to look hard into the Anthony family background to decipher why they were such a target for the media. The mother, Casey, was believed by the defence to have been sexually and physically abused by her father George Anthony, possibly mentally scarring and affecting her judgement as a mother. She was also only 22 years old, a young mother who had been pregnant as a teenager, immediately bringing forward the question of whether or not young women today are mentally prepared for motherhood. As well as this, she was living with her parents, a middle to working-class family. However the prosecution determined her not being able to provide for her daughter as the main motive for her murder. The cherry on top of the homicide cake was that Casey was an alleged alcoholic and drug abuser. Voila! This cocktail of dysfunctional social attributes had the public hooked.
My focus with this case is a way of examining how easily the public become obsessed with court cases like these, and the frightening way in which the media exploits these cases due to their ‘marketability’ or ‘sell-ability’. It was not long before Casey Anthony became a household name in America, with the New York Post naming it the nation’s “macabre tourist attraction” as hundreds of people camped outside the courtroom attempting to secure seats. However, as the case continued, it seemed to get more and more bizarre. People were struck by the complete lack of evidence both prosecution and defence had on Casey. Legal agenda became known as ‘circumstantial’ or ‘fantasy forensics’, meaning that neither side had plausible or sufficient evidence to prove their arguments. This led to Casey being found not guilty, a shock result which created uproar throughout America.
UCLA forensic psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman stated: “The main reason why people are reacting so strongly is because the media convicted Casey before the jury decided on the verdict”. This proved what had been previously written by The New York Times: that the American legal system had been turned into “trial by television”. A very clear and shocking example of this was TV news anchor Nancy Grace’s coverage of the trial, cited by Anthony’s defence attorney Cheney Mason as having “almost single-handedly inflated the Anthony case from a routine local murder into a national obsession”. By breaking down the set up of show’s coverage, it is easy to see how Nancy Grace did her absolute best to sway public opinion about the case. By calling Casey the “tot-mother”, Nancy Grace defined Casey not by her name or profession, simply by the fact she was the mother of a murdered toddler.
By carefully placing images of Caylee as a baby on screen constantly, the thought of the beautiful, tiny child would never be far from the audience’s mind. By selecting angry looking or particularly unattractive images of Casey to be repeatedly exhibited on screen, Mason made sure that the audience automatically saw the mother as the delinquent, the moody, disgusting woman who must have murdered her child because no one beautiful, manicured or happy could have committed such a heinous crime. Before the judge and jury have reached the verdict, the audience have already made up their mind about who is guilty. And yes, I am purposefully using the word ‘audience’. This is no longer a court case, this is Jeremy Kyle meets Law and Order. What this tells us in retrospect is that perhaps what really draws media and public attention to court cases is malleability. Without sufficient evidence, the media were able to massively sway and determine public opinion; public interest equals more views, which equals money for the network.
Evidence of this is not hard to come by, as within the first week of the trial, Casey Anthony had made a staggering $275,000 by selling home videos of the family to three major news networks. ABC News alone had paid $200,000. And so this case continually revolved less and less around legal justice and more around how much the public would pay for entertainment. At this point, law had transcended right and wrong, prosecution and defence. Law became a way for the public to judge for themselves ordinary people who had been caught up in a disgusting tragedy. Newser Statistics reported that on the day the verdict was given, posts on Facebook were coming in “too fast for Facebook to even count them, meaning at least ten per second”. Defence attorney Jose Baez, who allegedly made more than $300,000 during the trial, had become somewhat of a celebrity and this media frenzy was bought to a staggering climax when parents of Casey, George and Cindy Anthony, appeared on daytime TV talk show Dr Phil in September 2011. This case had bought a following of a Hollywood blockbuster, turning what should have been the sensitive treatment of a tragic crime within a respectable court of law into another celebrity circus.
The treatment of such criminal cases are arguably treated much more delicately in the UK. News cameras are not allowed inside law courts, unlike in the US where proceedings are filmed and aired to millions of viewers across many news networks. Indeed, the only visual representation we are given are the often comically caricature-like sketches provided by artists inside the courtroom. The debate about whether this should change seems to be constantly in motion, with media tycoons such as James Murdoch and Sky News associate editor Simon Bucks greatly in favour of turning a “shaft of sunlight” on what actually happens inside courtrooms. Despite the obvious financial incentive news broadcasters have in this motion, Bucks goes as far to claim that: “It’s about democracy and being able to report the only part of the democratic system that remains closed to television”. Is it the right of the public to be allowed access into the court proceedings that their taxes are paying for? And when does public interest become motivated by the wrong interests?
The public should still have the right to the facts, to truth and information, and from that they should be free to determine for themselves the guilt of the defence in question. The problem is that when cameras are involved, facts and the truth are more than likely to be exaggerated or dramatised. The presence of cameras within the court undoubtedly alters the dimension and feel of the proceedings. There is now an actor-audience dynamic between those involved in a court case and those following it in the media. Mark Thomson of Atkins Thomson states that “appellants will be fine, but some witnesses – and even some lawyers – might play up to the cameras”, and just like the fact that we are no longer impartial, we are part of a pre-determined script, which aims to emotionally blackmail the public.
Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, a newspaper industry body, said to The Guardian in 2011 that “if anyone thinks this is about making money – about being commercial – they should get real” and that “it’s very sad some people view the public as a load of morons who are interested in cases which are ‘sensational’. What is meant by ‘sensational’ cases are the ones the public are most interested in. The public is entitled to be interested”. As true as this might be, I would argue that the public are interested in missing children, full stop. In what is being done to stop child abduction, murder, fraud and crime in general. Instead of spending six weeks extensively debating whether or not Casey Anthony was a fit mother, why not spend a year publicising and examining as many of these tragic cases as possible, perhaps spend even a few minutes questioning the flaws in our legal system and why so many thousands of perpetrators go unpunished? And as for the money, Nancy Grace had its all-time network high of 5.2 million viewers in the hour that the Casey Anthony verdict was given, meaning advertising revenue of close to $50 million.
The law, just like every establishment, is a business. It requires money and it creates money. Law students do not spend seven years studying at a high ranking university to take a poorly paid job. Ultimately, the legal system is not without its moral or ethical flaws, but by giving the media the access they have when it comes to exposing and exploiting criminal trials we are fighting fire with fire. Yes to freedom of information, yes to unbiased, impartial examination of the facts, and yes to faith in the legal system, in justice and in fit punishment for inexcusable crimes. However, we need to stop and re-examine our obsession with sexualising crime, with discriminating and providing damning, unfounded evidence that ultimately wrecks people’s reputation or dignity. CSI makes for better entertainment anyway… CSI: New York, not Miami