Public Interest, the Media and why reporting of the Poppi Worthington case has been a mistake.

Call it filmmaking, production, journalism, whatever you like; at it’s very basis is the principle of telling a story. If we do our jobs well, that story will inform our audience, hopefully educate them and perhaps even entertain them along the way. In my book, those are good basic values to aim for. They were the values which founded the BBC and remain as solid a foundation for good journlism now as they were 100 years ago.

Herein, however, there rests an ethical dilemma for any journalist to wrestle with: that of the ‘public interest.’

Public Interest vs. Public Interest

Just because something may be of interest to members of the public, doesn’t mean that it it ‘in the public interest’ for it to be published/broadcast by the media. Obvious examples are details of criminal cases being kept secret before trials take place and information that might compromise national security. Of course, in some circumstances it’s not that clear cut.

Many far better journalists than I have grappled with this, however it was brought home to me this week when I saw coverage in the mass media of the tragic death of baby Poppi Worthington.

My deep uneasiness with the manner in which the media have reported this case stems from the fact that, quite simply, we do not yet know what actually happened. Indeed, we may never know. I won’t go into the timeline of events in detail here, there is a helpful summary in this piece on The Telegraph website for anyone who is not familiar. The points that give me the most concern, though are:

  1. The judge in the family court has ruled on the balance of probability. That is his job, and it means that in his view there is a 50:50 chance or greater that Poppi was sexually assaulted by her father. That may sound shocking but it is not enough to find someone guilty in a criminal court where the standard of proof is ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’. The media seem to have forgotten this fact altogether yet it is very, very important.
  2. By publishing this in the way they have, the press have effectively killed any chance that Cumbria Police or the CPS had of putting Paul Worthington on trial anyway. Even if they do manage to find enough evidence, which seems doubtful, then good luck to the court finding an unbiased jury. And whatever The Telegraph may think, trial without jury isn’t a realistic option.
  3. At this point, the question of guilty or not-guilty is largely irrelevant anyway, since so much of the media coverage of Paul Worthington has made him out to be a monster that I doubt many of the public would believe him not-guilty even if a court found him so. Mud, as they say, sticks.
  4. And finally, and most crucially for me in damning the media once and for all, there is this:
    The highlighting is mine, but the image is a clipping from The Telegraph article mentioned earlier. What I would like to know is, quite frankly, what do the media think they are doing sticking their noses into something that is quite frankly none of their business? If this isn’t shoddy and irresponsible, I don’t know what is.

The right to know vs. the rights of the person

Criminal law in the UK is based on the idea that not only should justice be done, but it should be seen to be done. That matters. It’s one of the cornerstones of our society and long may it be so. But it should not, must not, come at the expense of basic human rights.

One of those rights is to privacy. Another is to a family life. One more is to a fair trial. All of those are rights that have been denied to the Worthington family by the media because of the way they have reported this case. Let alone the right, perhaps the most basic of all, for poor Poppi to be allowed to rest with dignity.

There can be no question that it is in the public interest for any unexplained death to be properly investigated; for any allegation of harm – particularly against a child – to be looked into thoroughly. Unfortunately, partly because of failings (or so it would seem) by the authorities but also because of the way this case has been reported in the media, that now seems very unlikely to happen.

By trying to satisfy the huge level of interest from the public in stories about child protection and child abuse, post-Saville; the media have, I believe, failed in serving the very public interest they exist to satisfy.

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