Sunday, 2 March 2014

take your bets on the pestorius trial while you watch it live... have we lost sight of why this is even happening?

Tomorrow sees the start of the murder trial of South African paralympic champion Oscar Pestorius.  Pestorius, who won two gold and one silver medals in the 2012 Paralympics shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp at his home on 14 February 2013, but maintained that he believed her to be an intruder hiding behind a bathroom door, and didn’t realise that it was his girlfriend until he had fired four bullets through it. 


It is of course natural that the world will be taking an interest in this trial, both because pestorius is somewhat of a hero for his Paralympic achievements but also because he has overcome adversity to get where he is, and the thought of someone doing that and then turning out to potentially be a murderer does not, as a general rule, sit well with people.


However,, it would seem that this trial is entering a new dimension of world interest due to the fact that it was announced last week that large parts of the trial will be broadcast both on television and radio.  This of course means that the world’s press will have access to this broadcast and they will, of course, be able to broadcast it on news outlets around the world.  Our own Sky News have in fact been advertising the fact that coverage of the Pestorius trial will be broadcast during the day and at 9:00 every night. 


It’s not unusual for criminal trials to be televised.  In the US the televisation of trials is in fact quite common and has been for a number of years. I remember in fact that the OJ Simpson trial was televised in the mid 90’s, as was the trial of Louise Woodward, the British Nanny who was found guilty of murdering a baby in her care, a conviction which was subsequently reduced to manslaughter.


But this is the first time that South Africa has broadcast a trial, and I can’t help wondering why A, there seems to be the need to do so, and B, who wants to watch it and why. 


Perhaps it is because South Africa does unfortunately have a reputation for having a rather corrupt legal system, and the televisation of this trial could show the world that their legal system is in fact firm and fair and that Pestorius will receive a fair hearing.  Or perhaps it is because the television company who will be broadcasting this sees this as an opportunity to gain a bit more world recognission.  Or perhaps, in fact, it is being broadcast because someone somewhere feels that as Oscar Pestorius is a world recognised figure, broadcasting his trial is somehow in the public interest.  Or perhaps it interests the public...


But I have to wonder about this need for the public to follow the trial and possible conviction of a man who killed his girlfriend as if it is some kind of courtroom drama. 


It is one thing to follow the details of  a trial when the case is high profile.  As human beings we have a fascination both with crime and with celebrities.  Throw those two together and you end up with an almost irresistible combination. 


But it is quite another to sit in front of your television and watch the coverage as it unfolds, taking in the detail, perhaps making your judgements while you do so.  And it is also worth bearing in mind at this point that much of the evidence (and a considerable amount of speculation) is already in the public domain due to the fact that the bail hearing, which took several days, presented much of the evidence which was then published widely in the international press. 


But there is another turn to this.  This week bookies Paddypower have been criticised for advertising the fact that they are taking bets on the outcome of the Pestorius trial, with 7-4 odds for him to be found guilty and 4-2 not guilty.  Today they have gone one further by offering refunds on any bets if pestorius “walks.” 


Naturally complaints have been made to the Advertising Standards Authority, however it is too late as the advert has already been broadcast and no doubt there are people out there who will have gone into paddypower and placed bets to that effect.


It is like a boxing match, with people waiting for the action and placing their bets while they do so. 


And at the centre of all of this a young woman was shot and killed by the man she believed loved her, a man she may (or may not) have trusted.  Yet she has seemingly been forgotten in the feeding frenzy that is the media and the general public, desperate to catch every detail of this trial, desperate to know whether or not Oscar Pestorius did in fact mean to murder his girlfriend.


This trial is not in fact about Oscar Pestorius.  There is no question that he pulled the trigger of the gun which killed Reeva Steenkamp. If he is found guilty he will hopefully serve a significant sentence for his crime.  If he is found not guilty of murder he will be left to rebuild his life in the knowledge that he killed a young woman. 


This trial is not about needing to show the world’s press that South Africa has a true and fair justice system.


It is not about providing entertainment for the world’s voyeurs and rubberneckers desperate to  see whether their hero did it or not, or as something to watch with the morning cup of tea.


It is not about opportunities for the likes of Paddypower to make money by encouraging people to place their bets as to whether he did or didn’t do it.


In truth this trial is about Reeva Steenkamp, and the justice which she deserves.  She is not here to tell the court what happened on that fateful night, and therefore the evidence has to do that for her.  We can only hope that it will do just that, and that somewhere in the media circus that is the Oscar Pestorius trial, someone will actually take a step back and remember that all this is only made possible due to the fact that a young woman is dead.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Clare's law - the police still don't hold the answer

A law which enables women to check out the potential violent pasts of their new partners is to be expanded nationwide in March 2014.  

I wrote about Clare's law  Last year when the pilot was first launched across several counties in England and Wales, and questioned whether women really would seek to find out whether their partner had a history of violence, and whether men should be happy to submit themselves to such scrutiny on the basis that if they have nothing to hide then it doesn’t matter. 

Interestingly the articles I have read about the expansion of this law have not given any indication as to the success of the pilot scheme, actually there has been reporting that police have been confused about what kind of information should be given.  And yet the scheme is being expanded, and I can’t help wondering why, and whether anyone really benefits, or whether this is just a way to make it look as if more is being done to prevent domestic violence without actually doing anything more, but putting the onus back on to the potential victims.  

Last year 88 women were killed by abusive partners.  That’s just under two women a week.  I wonder how many of those abusive partners had a history of domestic violence that was known to the authorities.  I wonder how many of those women would have gone to the authorities to check out their partner’s history before embarking on a relationship with them, and if so, whether they would have decided against starting the relationship in the first place? 

Some people will say that one life saved makes it worth it.  But surely there is more that can be done without encouraging women to start out their relationships on a basis of mistrust and suspicion?  And a police check is not a security net – in fact it creates a false sense of security, because reality is that many women never report domestic violence, many women stay in abusive relationships for years and do nothing, or leave, ensuring they get away and never take steps to report their abusers, thus leaving them free to go on to abuse other women, women whose police check may have shown them up to have no history.  But in fact no history doesn’t mean not violent, it just means no known history.

Those 88 women who were killed by their partners knew they were violent.  As a general rule there is a history of violence before someone kills their partner.  And yet those women will have stayed in those relationships for a time before either leaving and then being murdered (as often happens) or being murdered during the course of the relationship.

Perhaps rather than putting the onus on women to ensure that their partner doesn’t have a known history, we should be investing more in ensuring that women who find themselves in abusive relationships can get the support to leave before they potentially become a statistic.  Perhaps we need to encourage women to speak out if they are being abused so they can get the support to leave.  There is no shame in being a victim of abuse – the abuser is the one at fault, but by staying in such a relationship women can only continue to be victims.  More needs to be done to try to encourage women to leave before it’s too late.  

And if this law can have one positive outcome, perhaps it should be that if a woman feels that she ought to be doing a police check into the background of her potential new partner, perhaps that is a sign that she shouldn’t be embarking on the relationship in the first place.  If it feels wrong from the outset, to the extent you would consider speaking to the police about a potential past, then nothing positive can come of it

Monday, 4 February 2013

Have we lost the art of compassion?

Ordinarily I write here about events in the news which I have opinions on, however something I experienced yesterday has compelled me to share it here and to ask the question, have we lost all sense of compassion?  


Yesterday on a train from London Charing Cross a woman got on at Waterloo East, stood at the entrance to the carriage and began to speak.  Initially I thought she was some kind of religious evangelist about to speak the word of whichever religion she might represent, however after telling the carriage her name and saying that she meant no offense, she then proceeded to say that she was homeless, that she had nowhere to sleep tonight, and that she would be very grateful if people could spare any change they might have in order that she be able to be safe and warm tonight.  She said that the streets of London are no place for a woman to be sleeping, and please would people consider helping her out.


The previously quite noisy carriage was stunned into absolute silence, and no-one said a word as she shuffled through the carriage.  No-one gave her any money either.  As soon as she’d gone people resumed their conversations, all apart from a group of young girls behind me who started talking about how awkward that was etc. 


A few minutes later she came back through the carriage and got off the train at Lewisham.  I can only assume that she may have continued to get on trains, going from one stop to another and then ultimately back again, and who knows how far she had come or how far she would go.


But what surprised me most was the reaction I got when I posed the question on Facebook and twitter, “if a woman silenced the train carriage you were in then said that she was homeless and could people please give her money, what would you do?”  I had expected a few people to say that they would give money, or food, had expected some to say that they would ignore her and do nothing.  However the responses I got ranged from “I would wonder where she got the train fare from,” as the majority response, with one stating that “I would see the train manager and ask for her to be removed since she clearly won’t have paid to be on the train,” of about 25 replies only three would have given her anything, two would have given money and one said he would give her food.  One even stated that she would move to another carriage. 


I will be the first to hold my hands up and state that I wouldn’t likely give money to a homeless person, not necessarily because I think that beggars are fakes just wanting to make money, but because a lot of people on the streets have substance abuse issues and I would feel uncomfortable giving someone money in the knowledge it might go to fund an alcohol or drug habit. But there are many homeless charities out there and I would give to those, and am about to sponsor a friend who is going to go to Everest base camp in order to support such a homeless charity. 


But while I might not give to individuals, I do wonder how we have developed into a society who can display such open hostility towards someone who is clearly in a worse off position than they are. Hostility that would state they would move to a different train carriage to avoid being in the same space as that person, for instance. 


There is no way of knowing whether the woman on that train was genuinely homeless or not.  However given the response she received I don’t imagine that riding a train line on a Sunday afternoon asking for money is a very lucrative pursuit, therefore I can only conclude that she was indeed someone who is in a worse off position than the majority of people who would see fit to judge her, and is at least deserving of some compassion if not our cash. 


So how is it that so many people feel unable to even feel compassion for someone in a potentially vulnerable position?


Have we lost the art of compassion?

Friday, 21 December 2012

The answer to guns is not more guns

Following calls for a change in US gun laws after the shooting of 26people (including 20 children) in a school in Newtown, Connecticut, the national rifle association (NRA) have decided to add their opinion into the debate.

Now as this is the NRA, no one would have expected them to support any kind of tightening of gun ownership. However I equally don't think most expected quite such an extreme statement either.

Firstly, the point was made that the only thing that could stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun. Well perhaps there is some merit in that, but it could surely then also be argued that the one thing that could stop a good guy with a gun is, a bad guy with a gun. And how can we ever be sure who is the good guy and who is the bad? After all, Adam Lanza had no previous history of violence before he entered a school last Friday and ended 26 innocent lives.

There was also a call for a national database of the mentally ill, and for the media to stop demonising lawful gun owners. So how do we define mentally ill in terms of being suitable for entry into a national database? And doesn't mental illness have enough stigma attached, without labelling everyone with mental illness in this way? While I think it fair to say that someone who goes on the rampage with a gun almost certainly has some mental health issues, it does not automatically follow that everyone with mental health issues has the potential to turn into a gun toting maniac. The gun used in last Friday's shootings was legally owned, but demonising the mentally ill is, it seems, preferable to putting any question mark over someone's legal right to own a semi automatic rifle.

However the NRA have gone one further in their encouragement of gun use, and have suggested that if all schools were armed then such a tragedy could be prevented in the future. They called for congress to fund armed security across all schools.

Except there is yet again a flaw in that proposal, because, as stated above, the one thing that can stop a good guy with a gun is, a bad guy with a gun. So what the NRA are in fact proposing is that US schools be turned into potential battle grounds where, if all goes according to plan, good will defeat evil. Except this isn't the movies, and real life doesn't work like that.

No one wants a repeat of the Newtown tragedy, but surely the answer is not to make guns in schools the norm, or to send the message that the answer to murder and violence is murder and violence.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Where there's death, there's a gun, time to change US gun law?

So yet another shooting in America.  This time a kindergarten in Newtown, Connecticut.  .  27 people believed to be dead including twenty children.  And as is customary in these shootings, the gunman of course then turned the gun on himself.


And so the discussions follow.  President Obama says that action needs to be taken, something needs to be done.  David Cameron and the Queen have sent their messages of shock and sadness.  The world is horrified, because the shooting of twenty innocent children is just so horrific as to be incomprehensible to the majority of normal thinking people. 


And then we ask the question again, the question that comes up every time another person in the US goes on the rampage with a gun, a phenomenon which seems to occur with frightening regularity.  And the question is when are the US going to do something about their gun laws? 


This isn’t about knee-jerk “let’s ban all guns” reactions.  This is about having tighter regulation on just who can go into a shop and buy a gun.  And the types of guns that people can go into a shop and buy.  Why, for instance, does any average individual need to own a semi-automatic rifle?  Why?


One of the arguments I’ve heard for not changing the laws is that if someone is determined enough to go on a killing spree, they will find the means to obtain a gun and do so whether they are illegal/regulated or not.  Well that may or may not be the case.  However equally it’s possible that if someone goes on a mass shooting spree, this is often because of a reaction to something that has caused the shooter to snap.  In which case, not having a gun to hand would certainly prevent someone from being able to pick up the gun and reactively go out killing people. 


We have tighter gun laws in this country, and even in Canada and Switzerland where the prevalence Of gun ownership is higher, and the gun crime rate is much lower. 


Any crime can be committed by someone determined to do so.  We don’t make the argument against making crimes illegal for any other circumstance, so why should guns be any different? 


For me the realisation became real when I read that in many schools in the US they have lockdown drills, where children are prepared on how to react to a mass shooting.  So how does it become acceptable that, instead of tightening the laws and procedures that make such mass shootings easier to carry out, a country instead teaches its children that mass shootings are the norm and something to be prepared for, like a fire alarm? 


I have lived in countries where terrorism was prevalent and as such, bomb drills were the norm.  However an individual going out on a mass killing spree with a gun is not and should never be prepared for as an anticipated event, and we need to seriously question the mentality of a society that thinks this way. 


The American constitution apparently gives the right for all Americans to bear arms.  But what about the rights of the innocent victims of this constitutional right?  Since when was the right to live safely, in an environment where gun drills didn’t exist and mass shootings weren’t a part of the educational process less important than every man and woman’s right to own a gun?


How many deaths will it take before the Americans begin to question whether the right to own a gun really is that important?  Will this shooting be remembered as the one that changes the laws of gun ownership or will we just look back at it in six months time when CBS is reporting on the latest gunning down of innocent people somewhere in the states? 


This morning twenty children got up and headed for school.  They will have been excitedly anticipating Christmas which is just ten days away.  Eagerly wondering about what Santa will bring them.  They are still young enough, you see, to believe in Santa, some of them as young as just four years old.  This morning twenty children had their whole lives ahead of them.  And tonight twenty sets of parents will not be tucking their children into bed.  Will not be anticipating putting the presents under the tree in ten days time which will already have been bought and wrapped.  And all because a man had the right to own a gun. 


As I write this, I am suddenly struck by the contrast with another story that has been in the news this week, where millions of people have sought to blame two Australian DJ’s for the suicide of a nurse after they made a prank call to the hospital where she was working with the Duchess of Cambridge.  They have been sent death threats, there have been calls for prank calls to be banned and even some suggestion that either the DJ’s or the Australian radio station they represented should be charged with either murder or at best corporate manslaughter.  And that was a hoax.  Badly thought out, but a hoax none the less. 


And yet a lunatic goes on the rampage with a gun and kills 27 innocent people and still millions of people out there defend their rights to own a gun.  How did it happen that people’s priorities became quite so skewed?

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

prison for a facebook post, slippery slope to removing freedom of speech?

Today a man was jailed for twelve weeks after posting offensive jokes about missing April Jones and Madeleine McCann on Facebook.


The twenty year old was arrested on Saturday night for his own safety after a fifty-strong mob turned up at his house with baseball bats.  Interestingly though, none of the mob were arrested. 


For me this is not about the inappropriateness of posting offensive jokes on social media. The issue here lies with freedom of Speech, and the message that sending someone to jail for exercising their right to that freedom of Speech sends. 


Twitter, Facebook etc. are full of offensive material which is passed off as jokes.  Go into any comedy club in the country and you will find the most distasteful jokes imaginable, most of which are made at the expense of other people.  The elderly, men, women, the disabled, dead celebrities, and apparently missing children.  When it comes to humour, pretty much any topic is fair game.  Many of them are crass and distasteful, deeply offensive even, and would not be considered funny at all by the vast majority of people.  We have the right to be offended at the jokes that others make which are considered distasteful or offensive, and we have the right to voice that disapproval both to the individual concerned and even publically if those jokes are made on a public platform. 


But surely it is a slippery slope when we start prosecuting people for making jokes which are considered distasteful?  After all, where do we draw the line? what to one is offensive, may not be to someone else, and vice versa, and even if something is considered to be universally distasteful, does it make it worthy of prosecution purely based on the offense caused to others? 


There is no question that posting so-called jokes about missing children is distasteful and offensive in the extreme.  But then I feel the same about posting jokes about people with learning difficulties, severe disabilities etc.  There are several well-known comedians who have a reputation for being deliberately offensive.  Jimmy Carr, Frankie Boyle, Ricky Gervais all have reputations for making the most distasteful jokes imaginable, people actively boycott their shows/appearances on television/publically express their distaste on facebook, twitter and even in the media.  Yet we don’t hear calls for them to be arrested and jailed and rightly so.  Because while distasteful jokes are offensive to many, those making the jokes still have the right to do so, and once we start taking away people’s right to make distasteful jokes, where do we then draw a line? 


In this country we regularly speak out about people being jailed in other, less liberal countries for daring to express opinions which we have the freedom to express here.  By jailing people for posting offensive jokes on Facebook, it is just a slippery slope towards eroding our ability to exercise freedom of speech. 


Matthew Woods was an idiot.  If he was posting such tasteless jokes on my Facebook newsfeed or twitter timeline I would have no hesitation in unfollowing him.  But that doesn’t mean I feel he should be sent to jail, after all, we all have the ability to offend someone at some point or other.  Should we all be careful what we post in case it offends someone and lands us in jail? 


We have the right to freedom of speech in this country.  That includes the right to express our opinions over other people’s distasteful comments made in the name of humour.  We need to ensure we retain that freedom of speech, and applying prison terms to people who do so is going down a slippery slope to removing our right to that freedom of speech.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

tactless journalism and society's responsibility

Yesterday Sky News reporter Kay Burley sparked complaints after revealing live to a volunteer in the search for missing five-year-old April Jones that this was now a murder enquiry and then asking her how she felt. 

Previous to this, Burley had said a few days before that Sky had a development which viewers would be excited about, before going on to interview the estranged son of a man currently being questioned on suspicion of April Jones’ murder. 

Kay Burley’s tactlessness is already well documented, from incidents such as her interview with Peter Andre, where she queried how he would feel if Katie Price’s new husband might want to adopt his children, to an interview she conducted with the wife of Suffolk Strangler Steve Wright, in which she asked, “do you think that if you’d had a better sex life, he wouldn’t have done it?” 


Journalists are generally not known for their tact or sensitivity, although it would appear that Kay Burley has a particular skill for asking the most tactless and insensitive questions imaginable at the most inappropriate times. 


However, I can’t also help wondering whether the public’s desire for rolling reporting of news events fuels the need for the Kay Burleys of this industry. 


When a serious crime happens, Sky News are there, reporting every detail as it happens, when it happens, regardless of whether it has been verified as being true or not.  Truth and speculation are intermingled and after watching about twenty minutes of a broadcast it can be impossible to know which are the actual facts of the case and what is speculation handed to reporters by members of the public, many of whom are often seeking their five minutes of fame. 


And where there is Sky news there are the millions of viewers who watch it, taking in every detail and speculating about it all amongst their close friends and family. 


Whether we like it or not news has now become the new entertainment.  It’s almost like reality TV, except the participants are real people who didn’t actually apply to be there. 


Yesterday hundreds of complaints were apparently made to Sky News and Ofcom by outraged viewers, and #sackKayBurley was trending on twitter.  But today I don’t imagine those viewers will have switched news channels to the BBC in their outrage.  Some will, some won’t, and some new viewers will even go over to Sky to go and have a look to see what it’s all about. 


Broadcasters should have a responsibility to broadcast actual news in a sensitive way while at the same time still being informative.  However we as a society also surely have a responsibility to remember that the news is actually someone else’s life, which we have been given an insight into purely because of the factors that have brought them into the news in the first place, and not entertainment fodder created by the broadcasters for our own edification.