Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Public trials and Madeline

In those dark days before reality TV and 24 hour cable, the hottest show in town was the public execution.

The golden age was probably the eighteenth century - just before Victorian sanctimony kicked in - but at a time when the blood-lust of a Roman arena could be married with the mass-sensationalism of easily available news-sheets and pamphlets. The ideal formula was a monstrous crime in lurid detail with either a pious confession at the scaffold or an defiant and unrepentant outlaw. Dignified exits were definitely disappointing.

Which brings us to the Madeline McCann case, where the latest developments have allowed the media, fuelled by an insatiable appetite for this sort of stuff, to revisit the entertainment value of an old time scandal-sheet.

I won't presume to venture an opinion on what the outcome of this case will prove to be, but I'm pretty sure that it will not be a happy ending. Whatever truth comes out in the end some people are going to end up looking pretty silly. If the parents are guilty; those parts of the media that championed them, or, if they are innocent; the Portuguese police and all those pop-psychologists who are now coming out of the woodwork to say 'there was always something fishy about the McCanns".

In fact, both these parties look pretty silly already.

The Mail and Express in particular are usually champions of the forces of law and order. Any time there are murmurings about civil liberties the mantra is repeated that only the guilty have anything to fear from DNA databases and increased police powers. Unless of course the suspects are white, middle-class, articulate and photogenic professionals and the authorities are some johnny-foreigner. In which case the same media becomes a crusader against mis-carriages of justice.

And of course the Portuguese police have done nothing to shake off the bumbling Clouseau-like view of them held by the xenophobic media here. From day one, when they failed to secure the crime scene, there does seem to be a litany of incompetence. More fundamentally there also seems to be a problem with the 'inquisitorial' nature of those European legal systems that are based on Roman law. Apart from anything else it appears to place the emphasis on the investigating police building a case that will produce the confession of a suspect rather than focusing on finding the missing child. As an aside, it is yet another argument for defending our peculiar Anglo-Saxon based legal system which is out of step with the rest of Europe from attempts at 'reform' by various governments.

The media circus sensationalises and scandalises on the one hand, and on the other satisfies a deep seated need for moral reassurance in mutual outrage. A sociologist would say that in this it plays an important role in social cohesion and legitimacy ( as did the scaffold at Tyburn).

But it has precious little to do with justice, or finding a missing toddler.

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