April 19 2024
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Naming and shaming: does the press really need to depict kids as monsters?

Naming and shaming: does the press really need to depict kids as monsters?

Sketch of journalists by Isobel Williams

Will Cornick, who killed teacher Ann Maguire, was named and shamed by the Sun before he was even charged – aged just 15. When he was convicted the tabloid press had a field day – they called him ‘vile’, ‘twisted’, ‘a fiend’. They raked over his past to reinforce this image, reporting that this ‘face of evil’ had ‘once terrified an innocent group of children by pretending to drink a jug of BLOOD in a park’, that he had ‘tried to talk his girlfriend into Natural Born Killers-style murder spree’, and that his classmates considered him a ‘weirdo’ and a ‘loner’.

This essay will feature the Justice Gap’s forthcoming collection of essays Justice in a time of moral panic, due out in September

I can understand why the media want to be able to identify boys like Will who commit serious crimes. It makes for a better story if they can use a name and picture and interview friends and ex-girlfriends – it helps to create a public monster.

All the details which come up in the trial can be related, giving readers a blow by blow account of the crime and the events leading up to it. In contrast a teenager who murdered a stranger in a lift was not named when convicted in April 2015, because the judge did not accede to the media request to list reporting restrictions. Despite the newsworthiness of a 13 year old committing murder, coverage was sparse. It was reported that the boy was part of a gang and had been excluded from school for carrying a knife. But there were few details.

Why shouldn’t children (under 18s) who commit crime be named and shamed? The media says the public have a right to know who commits serious crimes and why, regardless of their age – their readers want to know. The news editor of a national newspaper explained:

‘We don’t automatically challenge anonymity orders – only in specific cases where there are wider issues. There was a case recently where we wouldn’t have dreamt of challenging anonymity, on ethical grounds. It was a 12 year old who’d raped his seven year old sister and the family wanted to do their best for both children. It would have satisfied no-one other than the lynch mob brigade to name him. The blanket of anonymity can be abused, though. If the identity of defendants cannot be disclosed, we as journalists can’t report many circumstances of the crime. Children who commit crimes are a product of the environment in which they live, but if we can’t report their name, we can’t properly report the failings of their parents or hold the agencies to account who should have done more to prevent it.’ (quoted here PDF).

It’s definitely in the media interest to name and shame.

But is the media interest also the public interest? I’d argue it isn’t. Open justice is important, but this cannot automatically trump the rights of children to privacy and to the chance of rehabilitation, enshrined in the UN Convention on the rights of the child. Much of the reporting of children in trouble goes much further than reporting the facts – to the creation of monsters – and it is questionable how much naming adds to the media’s ability to cover a crime. The failings of agencies and parents can still be discussed, even if the child in question is anonymous.

The media also say that the public need to be protected from dangerous people, so those criminals should be identifiable. This is definitely the case for criminals ‘on the run’ but most children who commit crime are in the police station only hours after the deed – their crimes are seldom secret. Other parts of the justice system respect children’s right to privacy. Children who appear in the family courts because they have been neglected or abused, or because their divorced parents are fighting over them, are always granted anonymity. In a ground-breaking case, a family judge also granted anonymity to a mother facing criminal charges involving her children, in order to protect the children:

‘While there is no evidence of a risk to life and limb, if [mother] is publicly identified, the probable consequences for the younger family members would at best be harmful and at worst disastrous.’
Mr Justice Jackson, 2012

The effects on child offenders of being publicly named and shamed can also be disastrous. So great was the public outpouring of anger and vitriol after the conviction of Jon Venables and Robert Thompson for the murder of Jamie Bulger in 1993 that they had to have their identities changed immediately. The Sun, which follows every twist and turn of their story says Jon Venables’ identity has been changed four times and claims  ‘[it] has cost taxpayers an estimated £5 million to keep him safe’, as if this was way too high a price.

Do we want children who commit crime to be able to rebuild their lives? It’s difficult enough for a child who has been convicted in court and punished, to overcome the employment and educational barriers they face. But to face a wall of hatred is even harder. Robert is 15 and is serving a prison sentence for his involvement in a robbery. He was led on by a 31 year old, whom he hardly knew.

He was named on conviction and the press called him a ‘cocky career criminal’ and wrote intimate details of his life including the names of his mother, grandmother and his girlfriend, and the facts that his mother had a drug problem and he had spent time in care. The first he knew he had been named was when a prison officer told him of the negative media stories about him. As a result of the coverage, he has lost friends, and his grandmother and girlfriend have been harassed by the media. (here, p13).

Journalists can harass the relatives of child offenders and depict those who commit crime as monsters. But it is social media which has made naming and shaming into a life sentence. Twenty years ago, a child named in a local newspaper could be lucky. Often only local people with long memories would be able to associate the adult with the crime. A child had a chance of moving on with their life, particularly if they went to live somewhere else. But newspaper websites, twitter and facebook have changed all that.

The Twitter mob
Now naming and shaming lasts for ever since anyone can be googled at any time. And the twitter mob can be vicious. Jon Ronson wrote recently of people who had committed major faux-pas being hounded by social media activists (here). None of his subjects had committed crimes – one had told a sexist joke – yet they were vilified, and hounded out of their jobs. Some retreated from public altogether, others got depressed. This shows the power of the social media mob, and how important it is not to ‘feed it’.

Is ‘naming and shaming’ someone in social media for any kind of transgression the modern equivalent of putting people in the stocks and pelting them with rotten eggs? If so, I hope we can develop our understanding that such behaviour is inhumane and usually benefits no-one. There are some positive signs. The Guardian led the media pack to request that Will Cornick be identified. But, as soon as they succeeded, Guardian journalists tweeted their disapproval of their employer’s actions.

The EU has enforced a ‘right to be forgotten’ so anyone can apply to Google to have links about them taken out of search results. In the first eight weeks after the court ruling, Google received 70,000 requests for removal, many from those who wanted to delete references to criminal convictions. The legislation is hated by anti-censorship campaigners but as Cambridge researcher Julia Powles wrote:  ‘There is a public sphere of memory and truth, and there is a private one… Without the freedom to be private, we have precious little freedom at all‘. Many would say that children who commit serious crimes have forgone their freedom to be private, but I disagree. It’s in the interests of both child offenders and the public to preserve anonymity. Children have great potential to change. But naming and shaming prevents rehabilitation and labels children for life. So it may sell newspapers today, but it’s not in anyone’s long-term interest.