LETTER from THE EDITOR

Share
"Trial by newspaper" is the emotive, tossed-about term for much of what modern papers do - it is what red-faced MPs snarl when cornered, as in the Neil Hamilton case. We were conducting "trial by newspaper" yesterday morning on the front page, when we attacked Western politicians over the gangster-state of Albania, and we continue the prosecution with relish this morning.

We did call OJ Simpson a murderer on the front page, and some readers objected - but that followed a civil case which had in effect convicted him as a killer. In most examples, "trial by newspaper" is really a shorthand for journalistic finger-pointing and we assume that proper legal or political process will follow - that Parliament will act, or that a criminal prosecution will be brought.

But the jaw-dropping behaviour of The Daily Mail yesterday is in another league. By naming five unconvicted men as the murderers of Stephen Lawrence and challenging them to sue, it acted as a revolutionary tribunal of public opinion.

My instinctive reaction was an admiring gasp: it was a journalistic coup de theatre which chimes with what many people thought. Getting a murder prosecution in the climate of fear surrounding the case, with the accused refusing to answer, had proved impossible. So the Mail went ahead and, following the brave Lawrence family's crusade, convicted them anyway.

The hard truth is that newspapers are not juries, nor are editors judges. We get above ourselves at our peril: the Mail's challenge to "sue us if you dare" summons the blood, but conceals the huge disparity of financial forces that would then come into play. Knowing that, and having slung the placard "murderer" round five free men, what does the Mail think should happen next? What if they were lynched? There are scores of trials every week which end in a way someone thinks unjust: how would it feel if newspapers took even half of them up, in this way? Or if the accused killers were black?

Criminal standards of evidence can be frustrating, occasionally infuriating, but they are an essential civil protection against injustice - and that can create other injustice. It's a bad system, but better than any of the other ones. Being a journalist is great fun and a great privilege, but there is a sense of hubris about the trade which is becoming unsettling. The line between fearlessly accusing and simple bullying blurs very easily.

Now: a shameless puff, a piece of free advertising, a blatant abuse of my editorial position. An Ipswich-based publisher, the Golgonooza Press, has produced a collection of essays by an elderly Kentucky tobacco farmer by the name of Wendell Berry - it's called Standing on Earth. So? Well, Berry is something special, a wise and radical writer on man's relations with the planet. He produces poetry, essays, short stories, travel diaries and novels. He writes "about" education, farming, poetry, religion, energy and marriage but they all merge into one another and the overall effect is of a brilliant and seamless intelligence roving through the most difficult challenges of the modern world.

Even where you completely disagree with Berry (as I do, about quite a lot) you know you are in the printed presence of an extraordinary mind. How does he write? A little as one imagines Jefferson might if he were alive today. One of my thwarted ambitions was to edit a selection of Berry for a British audience. Now, instead, all I need to do is recommend this one.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Seven per cent of young men have recently stopped using deodorant  

‘Sweaty-gate’ leaves a bad smell for PRs and journalists

Danny Rogers
Alison Parker and Adam Ward: best remembered before tragedy  

The only way is ethics: Graphic portraits of TV killings would upset many, not just our readers in the US

Will Gore
A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory