Media Campaigns – when they go too far
Two stories played out on opposite sides of the Atlantic during July 2013 have illustrated how media campaigns can all too easily cross the boundary of what can be considered to be in the public interest…
Story No. 1: The Weiner sexting scandal
In July 2013, Anthony Weiner was a candidate in the upcoming election for Mayor of New York City. He had previously resigned from Congress after admitting sending photos of his private parts as attachments to text messages. Later he appeared on US national TV, supported by his wife, declaring that he had finished with ‘sexting’ for good. In July 2013 it was revealed that he had continued with this dubious activity, described in the UK’s Sunday Times newspaper as “compulsive online fantasising with a woman calling herself Sydney Leathers”. Again, Wiener admitted to these misdemeanours on TV, but refused to pull out of the mayoral election race. You can read more about this story here: http://nation.time.com/2013/07/30/anthony-weiners-brutal-week/
Story No. 2: The SAS soldier with an illegal firearm
Gun laws here in the UK are very strict and strictly enforced. In this country we take very seriously the possession of an illegal weapon—we are proud that we have a largely unarmed police force, and want to keep it that way. So, when Danny Nightingale, a soldier in the Special Armed Services, was discovered to be keeping an illegal pistol in his army house, he was taken to trial, found guilty and sentenced to 18 months in jail. That decision was later overturned on appeal. Then, in July 2013, Danny Nightingale faced a retrial court martial for his actions. You can read more about this story here: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2013/jul/25/sas-sniper-danny-nightingale-avoids-jail. For an alternative view, read this: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/defence/10205755/Rough-justice-for-Sergeant-Danny-Nightingale-a-man-we-trained-to-be-the-toughest.html.
Many media campaigns are for good causes. They provide a platform around which ordinary people can coalesce and have their voices heard. They have been successful in convincing governments to change bad laws; implement badly needed new ones; introduce or modify regulations; and take action against organisations or individuals that are generally held to be doing things that are injurious to society as a whole. Media campaigns have led to the elimination of injustices and compensation for victims.
But, as with all types of power and influence, there need to be boundaries set. Andrew Sullivan, writing in the Sunday Times of 28th July 2013, described this succinctly in the Anthony Weiner case—it should not be the media that determine whether or not New Yorkers get a chance to vote (or not vote) for Weiner. “He’s not a criminal and not a hypocrite,” Sullivan observes, “just a pathological narcissist…” The right response to Weiner’s situation, argues Sullivan, is not to call for him to drop out of the mayoral race, but for him to plough on and “let the voters decide if his character or lack of impulse control makes him unfit for the mayor’s office.” The point Sullivan is making is that there exists a democratic process that should be allowed to run its course. The media campaigns against Weiner are undermining and potentially subverting that process.
Switch now back to the UK. The judge in the Danny Nightingale court martial criticised the public campaigns mounted in his defence, telling the soldier that he had “made up a spurious defence which falsely impugned a fellow soldier and caused a number of SAS soldiers to risk their own security in giving evidence.” Bolstered by the support he was receiving from a section of the UK media and from some MPs, Nightingale had sought to have his retrial dropped. As it was, he received a two-year suspended sentence. Just as with the Weiner situation in New York, the media had been campaigning for the suspension of due process.
Campaigning to have laws, regulations or processes changed is one thing. Media campaigns that call for existing laws, regulations or processes to be ignored—no matter what the circumstances—are an altogether different proposition: one that crosses the boundary of what is in the public interest and goes too far.
[Check out my upcoming novel ‘Retribution’, dealing with issues of press intrusion. Coming soon. http://bit.ly/19m0V4U ]