Friday, 24 February 2012

Give a dog a bad name ...

In the last two days Australia has seen the reopening of the inquest into the death and disappearance, 30 years ago, of a baby girl from her parents tent as they camped near Ayres Rock (or Uluru as it is now called). At the time it was a media sensation, the mother was accused of killing her baby, her own and other statements that a Dingo had been heard and seen in the campsite just before the baby screamed and then disappeared were ignored by the police and the prosecution. The first inquest recorded the death as "Dingo attack" but the media, police and presumably the prosecutors went on a spree spreading rumours and 'leaking' information in a campaign to bring murder charges against the mother.

She was duly tried and "evidence" was produced to "prove" she was a cold blooded killer. The "evidence" included "blood on the dashboard" of the family car, a "bloody hand print" on the baby's recovered and partly shredded jumper suit and a statement from an "expert" that the rips and tears were not Dingo teeth, but a "pair of scissors" most likely used to kill the infant. Mrs Chamberlain was convicted by the jury, convinced by media reports that "she showed no emotion" and that she was "cool and calculating." Some of the rumours were really wild, including one that accused her of "witchcraft" (I mean, really? In this day and age?) and that her daughter's name meant "sacrifice in the wilderness." In fact, in Hebrew (her father was a 7th Day Adventist Minister) it actually means "Blessed of God."

A few years later the case had to be reopened because a jacket Mrs Chamberlain had said the child was wearing at the time, was recovered - from a Dingo's den! The "blood on the dashboard" it was then revealed had been spilled milkshake and the "bloody handprint" on the recovered jump suit, nothing but red dust! So how did the Jury arrive at a guilty verdict? How on earth did the police and prosecution get away with presenting "evidence" that was, quite frankly, a load of complete and utter garbage. It should have been thrown out of court immediately and the investigators and experts prosecuted for wasting the courts time. But it wasn't.

Why not?

Enter the media. Having whipped up a storm and ably perpetrated the rumours and leaks, giving them increasing credence, they probably influenced the police and the jury. It's called "expectation bias." What it means is that once you allow a biased view to enter your thinking, you will hear and see only the things and evidence that supports your expectations ...

Mrs Chamberlain's "crime" as far as the media was concerned, lay in her inability to show her emotions in public. Nor is this the first time we've seen the media pack leap to conclusions about someone's feelings because they don't shed bucket loads of tears, beat their breasts and snivel to the cameras. Think of the accusations hurled at the Royals for failing to show their "grief" while the Diana Fan Club wailed and metaphorically "rent their robes" all over the streets and the media. Think of the accusations levelled at Mrs McCann by the incompetents in the Portuguese Police - and how the UK Media fanned those flames with sensational reporting.

The same thing happened when a young British couple were kidnapped in the Outback and the young man was murdered. The Australian Press immediately accused her of being the killer. Why? Because she wasn't "grief stricken." As it turned out, a proper investigation did, eventually, lead to the arrest and conviction of a serial killer in South Australia, but you certainly didn't see any retraction in the press of their original slanders.

This is a problem many of us face. We are schooled not to wear our hearts on our sleeves, especially in public. But now, it seems, you can be found guilty by the Media, because you didn't wish to make a spectacle of yourself and kept your grief private. As the person who sent me the article which sparked this line of thought wrote on a forum -

It's always been a fear for me that I hate displaying my emotions in public and if something happened where the world's media were all focussed on me, judging whether I was showing enough emotion, I would be branded guilty of pretty much anything. People whose mothers have postnatal depression tend to be better than average at reading other peoples' faces and controlling the expressions they show to the outside world, because their survival depends on mirroring their mother's moods.

She makes a very good point. She then went on -

It's still considered normal to cry - the McCann family have been subjected to lots of snide comments purely because Mrs McCann committed the crime of not crying with a camera in her face... And even worse - she dared to put on make up and earrings every morning. I seriously saw an article written by a woman (who hadn't had a child go missing or been subjected to press hounding), saying that Mrs McCann must be guilty, because a distraught mother wouldn't care about her appearance. A commenter pointed out that people can go through a morning routine - and even find it reassuring to do so - when they're in shock or under stress, but they got shouted down. The media is a beast that needs to be fed distraught mothers' emotions in order to be appeased - "show us yer tears luv: and if you won't give us that best selling image, we'll sell more papers by saying yer guilty..."

Unfortunately, all too often in this day and age, Juries are already biased by the media coverage long before the accused is brought to trial. Ask Mrs McCann, I'm pretty sure she would tell you exactly what it's like to lose a child and then be hounded by the media pack and accused of murder - because you didn't "show enough emotion" for some yob standing on your doorstep and hurling impertinent and insensitive questions.

There is a serious danger here that the eagerness of the Media to "inform the public" can and does compromise Justice. Likewise, the legitimate desire of the Police to catch the person responsible can sometimes be itself compromised by "expectation bias." We all remember the scenes of wailing and lamenting masses at the funeral of Kim Il Jong recently. Is this a sign of a healthy society? Is this what we expect of anyone bereaved in distressing and extremely traumatic circumstances?

I would suggest that it is stupid, unreasonable and downright intrusive to think that way. I was brought up to not show my grief in public, "we don't display our grief" was the watchword, "we keep it for when we can be private." It is a policy I have every intention of maintaining - and the Media be damned!

Give a dog a bad name - then hang him, is the idiomatic expression. It is a warning; it should not be the watchword of a free and fair society.

1 comment:

  1. If you want a reading list to support your views, first try Camus' "l'Etranger" Hanged because he didn't cry at his mother's funeral and then the final part of the "Millennium Trilogy", "The girl who kicked the hornet's nest, prosecution that was "strong on supposition, but very short on evidence."

    Let us hope that the recent enormous developments in forensic techniqes (although not in provision of forensic support services!)will prevent evidence of strawberry milk-shakes being presented in future as theatrical blood for the show-trial.