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Wednesday, May 01, 2013 

We might deserve it, but we're not complicit.

One of the arguments made in the aftermath of the extent of the phone hacking at the News of the World becoming clear was that, to a certain extent, those who had bought the newspaper or tabloids and gossip rags in general had in some way contributed to the pressure on journalists to do whatever it took to uncover new scandals or affairs.  It's not an argument that can be completely dismissed, as increased competition or sales cleary have driven journalists in the past to ever greater lows (see the entire Madeleine McCann disgrace, or the Sun in the 80s under Kelvin MacKenzie), but it's absolute nonsense that readers would ever have wanted hacks to break the law in order to provide them with them the type of stories hacking generally produced.

Although it's not necessarily hacks themselves that made the point (although some of the more egregious definitely alluded to it), the effect is the same: it takes the whole of the blame away from those actually responsible and places it on those who buy a newspaper in the morning for any number of reasons. One of the most obvious examples is the panic over the MMR vaccine, and the consequences now playing out in Swansea. The more than slightly sheepish way the Daily Mail has reported the outbreak of measles hasn't gone unnoticed, the paper having been the foremost national champion of Andrew Wakefield's study claiming that the MMR vaccine could lead to autism.

This isn't to play down the fact that Wakefield's study was published in the Lancet, or indeed that the Mail was far from the only publication to repeatedly draw attention to Wakefield's claims, local newspapers and Private Eye having also dedicated campaigns and column inches to demanding answers, yet no other media outlet went so far out of its way to attack politicians over the scare, or has such a large circulation.  Certainly, the media can't be held responsible for parents deciding not to let their children have the jab, but they most definitely can for continuing to claim there's a link years after Wakefield's research was discredited and the man himself struck off.

The idea that we are all in some way guilty or responsible for the media we have especially sticks in the craw when it comes to the coverage given to sensational murder cases.  Andrew Gumbel, reviewing Amanda Knox's memoir of her time in Perugia, suggests that all those "who feasted on her story contributed in some way to the hysteria".  Gumbel most certainly has, considering he co-authored Knox's co-accused Raffaele Sollecito's own account of what happened following the murder of the British student Meredith Kercher.  While the case was bound to lead to substantial media interest considering the circumstances in which a young woman away from home in a foreign country was found dead, what almost immediately commenced was a free for all, the normal restrictions and holding back on reporting that would follow a murder in this country completely ignored.  Even before Knox and Sollecito were charged, the Mail for one was running pieces such as this, all but saying outright that she was guilty of whatever it was she would be accused of.

In a week when the 50-year-old Profumo scandal is once again making the headlines, it's not surprising that sex and violence in the sun should have led to such lurid reporting. What should be is that so soon after the Portuguese police had been denounced, their Italian counterparts' every word was believed. They never came up with a motive for Knox's involvement beyond the utterly risible claim that she and the others killed Kercher because she refused to join in their sex game, yet down to how Knox had already been reported as having a voracious appetite for casual sex, whether true or not, this was deemed enough.

Knox as it turns out was a thoroughly typical student: she had a liking for parties, smoked cannabis and horror of horrors, had sex. She was also on her own in a country where she had only slight knowledge of the language, as well as being young and naive. She responded as many others would in the same situation, although not all would have tried to pin the blame on another innocent.  As a result she was presented as a devil with an angel face, a conniving, murderous whore, an American harlot who snuffed out a virtuous British flower.  They ignored that the real killer had already been convicted as the fiction was easier to sell.

There is perhaps something to be said for how, back in America, Knox was thought innocent from the beginning and how her family attempted to influence the coverage, reminiscent of how Louise Woodward was regarded in this country.  It can't possibly be the case though that it was readers as opposed to the media and the Italian prosecutors who contributed to the hysteria, as the narrative from both was there from the very beginning.  We might have the media we deserve because we don't protest or complain enough about what they publish, but we most certainly aren't complicit as a result.

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