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What people need to understand about the media coverage of the Finsbury Park attack


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As news of the Finsbury Park attack broke, many took to social media to express their outrage at the media coverage of the events.

Since Muslims had been targeted, many felt sections of the press were covering it differently to the Westminster and London Bridge attacks.

Some outlets seemed hesitant to describe it as a terror attack.

However, as a journalism student who has covered media law, I feel the need to point out the coverage is expected and ethical.

There is a clear difference legally between the Finsbury Park incident and the two previous attacks in London.

The suspect survived. He was arrested, meaning there are active criminal proceedings and he will face a trial.

The suspects in the other incidents died at the scene, meaning no criminal case was ever brought against them in regards to the attacks.

The fact that there are active criminal proceedings greatly limits the tone of reporting from British newspapers.

Because, when there is a trial, newspapers must be incredibly careful about what they say. If they are found guilty of contempt of court, reporters could end up in prison and a mistrial could be declared.

Contempt can be committed in several different ways. In the broadest sense, it is anything that can tip the balance of the trial and wreck its fairness.

This can include opinion pieces deliberately supporting one verdict, misreporting what was said in court, and producing articles likely to smear the character on trial and influence the jury against them.

With a case like this, people will read the papers. If they see reports describing the suspect in negative terms, like the ones used to describe the other suspects, this will influence their mindsets before the trial has begun.

12 of these people will become jurors. If they have constantly seen articles hammering the suspect, they will find him guilty, no matter what happens. The trial is therefore not fair and justice is not truly served.

The legal team of the suspect will appeal and they’ll win. They’ll argue the press negatively influenced the jury against him denying him the right to a fair trial. They’ll be right, too.

Once criminal proceedings have ended, the press will have more freedom in their reporting. But before that, strict restrictions apply.

If the suspect had died, then the papers would have had more freedom. It would not change a thing, as there cannot be a trial if the defendant is dead.

You may argue that the jury would’ve reached the conclusion anyway, but that statement cannot be proven, making it quite frankly meaningless.

The press, by toning down their reports, are making sure they do not breach contempt laws. This will help ensure that justice is delivered - which is what we all want isn’t it?

The coverage of the incident has been cautious for good reason. Newspapers have done their job, reporting facts when they can and making sure they do not unfairly tip the balance. They should not be criticised for this.

Even Breitbart, the alt-right site often accused of divisive headlines, was cautious. Even the site's most staunch defenders cannot hide the fact it can over-dramatize stories.

Their headline?

“London Terror: One Dead, One Arrested as Man Ploughs Van into Pedestrians Outside London Mosque.”

Even this reported the facts and was careful to avoid inflammatory comments.

People criticising the press for their reporting of the attack must realise that there are several severe legal ramifications if the newspapers overstep during active criminal proceedings.

With contempt, intention does not matter: if you commit it, you’re in trouble.

My heart goes out to those affected, it really does - but to ensure justice is delivered, the press have merely followed the law.


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