Jon Slattery: Balanced court reports can add to pain of murder victims' families

Guest post by Jon Slattery

Torture is how the Sun sums up what the family of Millie Dowler were put through during the trial of Levi Bellfield.

The story is aimed at the treatment of the family by defence lawyers but the media also adds to the pain of families of murder victims by, in the interests of balance, having to cover defence cases which try to blacken the name of those who have been murdered.

I covered murder cases when I worked for a news agency and an evening paper. I remember two cases involving the murders of a 12-year-old boy and a teenage girl who were both sexually attacked.

The defence put forward claims that the victims had agreed to sex and were murdered by other people. It was the only possible defence because there was strong forensic evidence linking the accused to the sex attacks on the murder victims.

It led to lurid headlines saying the girl or boy had “agreed to sex”. It has always troubled me that the newspaper reports based on the spurious defence claims added to the distress of the families of the murdered children.

In both cases, police said afterwards that there was not a shred of evidence to back up the claims put forward by the defence.

It’s not the media’s fault. Journalists are taught court reports are privileged only if you give a balanced report of a court case. But it doesn’t make it right.

This post originally appeared on Jon Slattery’s blog. Jon is a freelance journalist based in London and was deputy editor of Press Gazette, the journalists’ magazine, from 1993 until 2006.

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One Response to Jon Slattery: Balanced court reports can add to pain of murder victims' families

  1. Pingback: Media law mop up: Privacy debate; Hari interviews; and BBC regulation | media law & ethics

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