Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Why banning the media from high-profile rape trials will never be in the public interest

Journalists have a duty to report the facts, says Fionola Meredith, however distasteful and explicit they may be

It was the blood that got to me. I was in Courtroom 12 at the rugby rape trial, taking notes as a scientific officer described in detail the pattern of blood stains on the complainant's underwear. Suddenly, I felt sick. It seemed horrible, voyeuristic, to be sitting there listening to these intimate, private details. But then I remembered that I had a job to do, and kept on writing.

The media has been criticised by feminists and victims' groups, particularly those that work with abused women, for their reporting on this trial. Coverage has been condemned as intrusive and salacious.

Women's Aid said it had received phone calls to its helpline from women who had decided to withdraw their complaints, deterred from progressing through the judicial system, as a result of what they heard was happening in court.

The chief executive of Women's Aid, Jan Melia, said: "The media coverage has demonstrated quite markedly that the process for the victim is excruciating. It punishes them… it's an awful process in which they are just annihilated."

I can understand the horror and the frustration that campaigners feel, particularly given the low rates of reporting sexual violence perpetrated on women, and the minuscule level of convictions. According to last year's PSNI statistics, just 5% of reported rapes resulted in charge or conviction.

And I'm not surprised that a victim, reading or hearing about the lurid details of this case, might decide not to put themselves through such a gruelling experience.

But I strongly believe that journalists have a responsibility - indeed a duty - to report the truth, however unpleasant, disturbing or distasteful it may be.

We may not like the explicit nature of some of the evidence we heard in Courtroom 12. I certainly didn't. But as journalists, we are the public's eyes and ears, and we must tell people, as clearly and honestly as we can, exactly what is being done in their name.

If there was a media ban, and journalists were unable to report the details of this trial, exactly the same evidence would have been presented and discussed.

But the wider public, including female victims who may be considering taking a case, would not know about it.

Personally, I think it is important that potential complainants are made fully aware of the interrogative, adversarial nature of a rape trial, including the forensic dimension, so they can make an informed decision about whether they want to proceed. This is the reality, after all, whether we approve of it or not.

What many people don't know is that both broadcast and print media are bound by strict guidelines determining what they can and cannot report.

This is a responsibility that journalists undertake with great care and caution, because the consequences of getting it wrong, and thus prejudicing the trial, are so serious.

It is certainly not a salacious free-for-all. Social media reaction to the trial, by contrast, was an absolute cesspit of hysterical speculation and counter-speculation, lies and half-truths, some of which was so witlessly irresponsible that it could have actually derailed the trial.

It would also be absurd to bar the media from the courtroom when any person who wants to attend is free to sit in the public gallery, which was full every day in the case of the rugby rape trial.

Which brings us to the issue of anonymity. One thing that really shocked me was the use of the complainant's name in open court. She herself gave evidence from behind a long blue curtain, so that she was not directly visible to the defendants, Press and members of the public, nor us to her, though we could watch her speak on a video screen.

But what is the point of taking these measures to protect her identity if her name was freely and repeatedly referenced, fully audible to every single person in the room?

It is encouraging to hear that the Department of Justice is to launch a review of the handling of serious sex offences in Northern Ireland, and that Judge Patricia Smyth, who oversaw the nine-week trial, is now being consulted on lessons that may be learned for the future.

Undoubtedly there is a need for a review of how the Northern Ireland justice system deals with sexual crime, so that complainants may be more fully protected, while still ensuring defendants' right to a fair trial.

Silencing the media, however, is not the answer. As lawyer and broadcaster Marcel Berlins put it, journalists are the "people's proxy, reporting on behalf of the population what goes on in our courts".

If we want open, accountable justice, the people need to know.

Belfast Telegraph

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