Convictions over-turned, trial by media continues

Tuesday 4 October 2011

Last week she was a witch and a ‘she-devil’. Today, after being cleared of the murder of British student Meredith Kercher, Amanda Knox is being characterised as a heartless gold-digger. According to the Daily Mail, ‘Knox is looking at a lucrative future of million-dollar TV and book deal offers, while the stunned Kercher family said…they accepted the court’s verdict but the search for the truth goes on’.

In fact, members of the Kercher family have behaved with great dignity and there’s no impression, following the verdict last night, that they regard the case as themselves versus Ms Knox and her relatives. Such contests are often forced on grieving relatives by the popular press, which decides who’s guilty long before any trial and encourages the idea that an acquittal is a betrayal of the murder victim. In this case, the court in Perugia has overturned the convictions of Ms Knox and Raffaele Sollecito, suggesting that justice for Ms Kercher can be achieved only by a rigorous investigation into who might have been involved in her death besides Rudy Guede, who is serving 16 years for his part in the killing.

This is a horrible crime, the brutal rape and murder of a young woman in her own home. The Italian police should have investigated it thoroughly and without jumping to conclusions, and it was their failure to do either of those things that eventually destroyed the case against Mr Sollecito and Ms Knox. The latter’s behaviour after the discovery of Ms Kercher’s body was strange and ill-advised, but that could have been accounted for by her being a foreigner, young for her age (she was only 20) and in shock. It’s hard to imagine that anything in her life in Seattle had prepared her to cope with a murder investigation in a foreign country, especially one like Italy where attitudes to women are sexist to the point of parody.

During the Berlusconi years, Italian women have been reduced to the status of sex objects in politics and popular culture, thanks to the extraordinary influence of the Prime Minister’s media empire. Public life has been coarsened by the preening behaviour of this elderly man who boasted, in a secretly-recorded conversation, that he was a part-time Premier because of the exacting demands of his sexual appetite. He’s currently facing trial on charges of paying for sex with an under-age girl who allegedly worked as a prostitute, while his boasts about the number of women he’s slept with are typical of men who habitually abuse women.

Many Italians are angry and embarrassed about Berlusconi’s antics but the impact of his administration on popular ideas about women is undeniable. Whenever women are portrayed primarily as sex objects, the gap between acceptable and unacceptable female behaviour narrows; one of the problems with the age-old madonna/whore dichotomy is the rapid transition between categories. Within days of Ms Kercher’s murder, Amanda Knox had stopped being treated as a nice American girl and was being portrayed as a sex-crazed killer, despite the absence of evidence against her or her supposed accomplice, Mr Sollecito.

Double standards are all over this case: in a country where young women are encouraged to appear in as few clothes as possible on Berlusconi’s television channels, Ms Knox’s possession of a vibrator and condoms was cited as proof of her so-called depravity. (It more likely showed that she belonged to a generation that grew up in the wake of Sex and the City, but the liberal ethos of that series is miles from Berlusconi’s Italy.) Police, prosecutors and sections of the media failed to appreciate the enormous gap between possessing sexual confidence and taking part in a murderous sexual assault, setting the scene for what must now be regarded as a significant miscarriage of justice.

Denied the satisfaction of an unsuccessful appeal, papers like the Daily Mail have changed tack, accusing Ms Knox of preparing to exploit the notoriety they themselves thrust upon her. At the same time, they’re implying that the acquittal of the two defendants is an insult to Ms Kercher’s relatives, as though the interests of the three families remain opposed. They aren’t and I hope some very different lessons will be drawn from a dismal sequence of events that’s already dragged on for four years.

Let’s be grateful that Ms Knox and Mr Sollecito haven’t spent the last two years facing a death sentence, as they might have done in the US. Let’s also hope that the police and prosecuting authorities recognise how badly they’ve let down Ms Kercher’s family, who are owed a new and impartial investigation into their daughter’s death. That, rather than further attempts to blacken Ms Knox’s name, is the unfinished business left by this messy and hugely distressing case.

Outbreak of decency in tabloids doesn’t last long

Dead stars are entitled to privacy

Independent on Sunday, 2 October 2011

The late Michael Jackson made an unscheduled public appearance last week. If he’d been around to witness it, I don’t suppose the singer would have been surprised to learn that even death hasn’t managed to guarantee him a degree of privacy that most human beings take for granted. But the widespread publication of photographs of Jackson’s corpse on a hospital trolley in 2009 is a reminder that, in the world of the 24-hour media cycle, the grave is no longer a fine and private place.

It isn’t the first time a public figure has been subjected to this final indignity. A stomach-churning photograph of Marilyn Monroe’s corpse exists, taken after her post-mortem examination in 1962, but it hasn’t been printed anything like as often. In May this year, the United States government rightly decided against releasing photographs of Osama bin Laden’s dead body, although in that instance I doubt whether questions of taste were paramount; pictures of his damaged face would have enraged al-Qa’ida sympathisers, while conspiracy theorists would have screamed that the pictures were fakes. Hours after the Jackson photographs appeared, claims were already circulating on the internet that they’d been “doctored” to make them look worse.

What’s instructive about this episode is that it comes at a moment when popular journalism is on the defensive, having to defend itself against charges of wholesale intrusion into private life. There’s nothing new about this; tabloid editors are always swearing that they’ve got over their paparazzi addiction, only to carry on publishing photographs of famous people snapped from behind bushes with lenses that resemble drainpipes. Members of the public rarely suffer this degree of intrusion, although last week’s pictures of a British man who’d just been attacked by a shark – one of his legs was bitten off as he swam on a beach near Cape Town – seemed an unnecessary exposure of private horror.

Editors who decided to blazon the Jackson photos across their front pages would no doubt argue they were already in the public domain, having been displayed during the trial in Los Angeles of the singer’s doctor, Conrad Murray, for involuntary manslaughter. I don’t know whether reporters covering the trial knew that the prosecuting authorities decided to show the pictures against the wishes of Jackson’s family, who were in court and visibly distressed, but it might not have made any difference. One of the most egregious offenders was Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, despite the fact that that proprietor is said to have vetoed corpse-photos in the past on the grounds that “stiffs don’t sell papers”.

That’s hardly the issue, which revolves around concepts the popular press isn’t terribly interested in: taste, privacy, and respect for the feelings of friends and relatives. I can think of circumstances in which relatives might choose to display photographs of loved ones taken after death – to reveal evidence of torture or a massacre, for example – but they’re few and far between. The fact that Jackson chose to live his life in the public eye is a pretty pathetic excuse for publishing pictures of his corpse, while the heartless response to the photos on some websites confirms the numbing effect of such invitations to voyeurism.

Jackson was a very damaged human being, like Marilyn Monroe, and there’s no doubt they would both have absolutely hated the idea of being exposed in this way. So would most of us: dead bodies speak volumes about our vulnerability and they shouldn’t be turned into the kind of spectacle we’ve just witnessed. Forgive my cynicism, but these outbreaks of taste and sensitivity in the popular press never last long.