Tag Archives: Musings over media

Media on trial or trial by media

7 Sep

As an ex-pat, the differences between your home country’s culture and your adopted country’s culture can be blatant and subtle alike, but whenever they do arise, their revelation usually makes you have a little pause and think “huh”. The same is true for similarities you weren’t expecting. I had a little pause this week listening to a radio programme on the role of the media in the Thomas Quick case.

Full details on the case can be found in an excellent documentary (by Hannes Råstam) first aired on Swedish Television in 2008, but in brief, Quick (who has since changed his name to Sture Bergwall) confessed to around 30 unsolved murders during compulsory psychiatric therapy he was undergoing after being convicted of armed robbery in 1990. He was convicted for eight of these murders between 1994 and 2001. The convictions were based almost entirely on his confession evidence and there has been a lot of criticism of the trials: three convictions were overturned, retrials were ordered for two of the remaining convictions, and applications for retrial submitted for other three.

This was all brought to the public fore again by a recent book also by Hannes Råstam and has resulted in a storm of media coverage (including a recent entry) and opinions on the case, including the opinion of one Supreme Court Justice who, in his role as Chancellor of Justice, decided there was no need to review the case in 2006.

In the midst of all this, I was struck by Erik Hedtjärn’s question during a debate about why these issues weren’t covered in the media at the time of the trials. Why didn’t the media ask obvious and critical questions at the time? Why didn’t the media fulfill its role in highlighting the issues with the evidence in the reports then?

Now, I wasn’t in Sweden at the time so have don’t know if they did or didn’t, but the thing that struck me with this statement was the perceived role of the media in criminal trials. Hailing from Old Blighty where the role of the press in all its glory is currently under scrutiny by the Leveson Inquiry, I really did think “huh”. Back home, criticisms of the overly-involved role of the media in criminal trials and investigations has been raised in many high profile cases – and perhaps never more so than the phone hacking scandal.

In Sweden, the criticism was that the media had failed to sufficiently cover the problems in the trial and played their part in the process properly. Much like the criticisms of trial by media in the UK, the criticism ultimately points to the content of the reports in the press (criticisms in the UK have focused a lot on the individual’s right to privacy and affect of media reports on the right to a fair trail, compared with the public interest in knowing).

But the really important point for both the inquiry in the UK and the criticism in the Quick case in Sweden is that the press has a very important role in reporting on criminal trials and investigations. A very important role.

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