Wednesday, January 25, 2006

storms in tabloid teacups

There's something i've been wondering about lately: should the mainstream, tabloid media report on complicated scientific and legal issues?
A while ago there were proposals to change Britain's murder laws, so that there was one offence of homicide with different "degrees" of seriousness depending on severity and other factors such as provokation, instead of the current system with two main categories of homicide (murder and manslaughter). there have been cases of killing which were borderline between murder and manslaughter, so there could be a new category (2nd degree homicide) inbetween the two categories. I don't see what would be wrong with this.
When you learn Law you'll find cases where you agree with the judgement and cases where you don't agree, and in Criminal law there have been cases of murder which a lot of people felt should have been manslaughter, and cases of manslaughter which a lot felt should have been murder. Outside the classroom there are cases like this every day - e.g. the "happy-slapper" girl and her gang who beat up 3 men, 1 of whom died (see the headlines "STAMPED TO DEATH FOR FUN" and "THE SAVAGES"... also note irony on the front page of the Mail, having "GOOD HEALTH" and crime show DVDs on the same page as this!). The gang were convicted of manslaughter, but not murder. I think that this case was more serious than manslaughter, but the judge or jury must have had some reason for not convicting them of the more serious offence of murder (shame the media hasn't really said what these reasons were, although they have talked about the girl's rubbish childhood (her heroin addict mother walked out on her and left her to roam the streets at the age of 3, then she was put in care homes, and they're hardly a nice environmnt to grow up in) so i'm guessing that that may have been a factor). if there was a higher offence than manslaughter, they could have been convicted of that instead.
another proposed change was that the mandatory "life" sentence would be abolished. that does not mean that the life sentence will be abolished, it just means that it won't be mandatory any more. With a lot of crimes, judges take a lot of factors into account before deciding on your sentence. Supposing a woman is being beaten by her abusive husband every day and feels she cannot escape, then one day she fights back and kills him. the fact that he was abusing her could be taken into account when the judge decides her sentence, and she may get a shorter jail term than the standard "life". That's ok with me, as that kind of killing is less serious and has more reason behind it than a thug senselessly killing a stranger for fun (no real reason whatsoever). if either murder deserves a life sentence, it should be the latter, not the former.
When the news was reported on the proposed changes to our homicide laws, ITV news and gutter press like the Daily Mail were screaming and whipping up mass hysteria (as they do over EVERYTHING that happens), making people (including my poor mum) who didn't know the full facts run around like headless chickens panicking that murder was going to be legalised (see the headline "GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER").
WTF? did they seriously think that 21st-century Britain was REALLY going to legalise murder? anyway, these were only PROPOSALS, they're not actually coming into effect yet.
I think that these kinds of news sources should not report on legal issues that their audience are unable to understand. the same could go for scientific issues too. ITV News and tabloid newspapers are always trying to scare and panic people with shocking, attention-grabbing headlines, even when the actual truth behind the headline is more mundane. The kind of people who watch/read these are the kind of people who would be misled by the shock headlines and wouldn't actually understand the issues in the news story. These stories could be reported in broadsheet newspapers, legal/scientific journals, and on the BBC and Channel 4 (because their news shows are less tabloid-y), so they'd only reach an audience that understand them. That, or the dumbed-down tabloid news sources start reporting in an honest, unbiased and non-scaremongering way, but of course that will never happen.
Thanks to the daily mail letters blog, the BBC's have your say website, and discarded newspapers i found and read on long train journeys, i've noticed that there is an audience out there that only reads shock headlines and panics. They also seem to be the sort of people who are quick to spout buzzwords and cliches like: "nanny state," "playing with nature/playing God," "bring back the birch/cane/National Service," and that old favourite "It's political correctness gone mad!" A lot of the time the news story in question has nothing to do with these things. For example there was a mother who went to court demanding that she has the right to know if her daughter has an abortion, the judge said that she doesnt have an automatic right to know because her daughter, like everyone else, has a right to privacy. No laws were changed; the judge merely reiterated what the law has always said in this country. A few people commenting on this story in have your say complained that this judgement was the "nanny state" interfering - for god's sake, they don't know what they're talking about, this is the opposite of the nanny state! If it WAS a nanny state, then the law would force her daughter to tell her. I can't see what this case has to do with a "nanny state."
Another time people complained needlessly of a "nanny state" was when the government decided to have rules on nurseries by extending the National Curriculum to include them, e.g. they must provide an environment where kids can learn through play, and staff should talk to the kids to encourage them to learn to talk. Nothing wrong with that i say. But the Mail, for some reason, thought that this was an evil plot and ran the screaming headline "TODDLERS TAUGHT TO SPEAK BY STATE DIKTAT." (I cannot see how learning through play and teaching kids to speak has anything to do with a dictatorship!)
I hate New Labour too (although for different reasons), but i think everyone should have a level playing field, and it's unfair how they can never win with the Mail et al. The recent headline about vaccinations is a perfect example: if they introduce new vaccinations that could save kids' lives, the Mail complains about it (and probably uses it as yet another opportunity to whinge about the "nanny state"); if they don't introduce these vaccinations, the Mail will probably run shock headlines like "BLAIR LETS BABIES DIE" and complain that "Labour is not doing enough to protect us from the deadly threat of bird flu from abroad." *

* Note typical tabloid disdain for anything coming to Britain (well, England really, i mean the Mail hardly speaks for anyone outside of the home counties/ south-east England) from abroad.

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