LETTER from THE EDITOR

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The Independent Online
"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.

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