Ben Sullivan and student journalists

A quick break from Finals revision to jot a few thoughts about this piece, published last week on the website of The Cambridge Student newspaper. I’ve seen it shared a lot on social media but, unsurprisingly, I have a few problems with it.

Before that though, I do get where the author – Morwenna Jones – is coming from. To be accused of rape – one of the vilest crimes a human being can commit – is the sort of story student (and national) journalists should be careful to handle. We (I used to do a fair bit of student journalism myself) should always question whether we’ve framed and balanced stories in the right way.

Without a doubt, I think there is an argument to be had about what happens to all these news stories if and when Sullivan isn’t charged, or is charged and found not guilty*. The author is right to say that:

It’s hard to imagine him walking out of court and going straight into the research position he was hoping to with BP.  Instead, his life would be ruined.

That’s not right and, if and when the time comes, it’s worth considering how best to rehabilitate Sullivan. Now: I have a couple of problems – or rather, loaded questions – with respect to the piece. First, Jones writes:

[We should] revert back to focusing on the media and to ask ourselves, have we gone too far? Of course, reporting and identifying [alleged] criminals in the press can be an important stepping-stone in helping convictions.  But, how far are the motives that characterize this investigative journalism ethical?

Jones says here that reporting and identifying alleged crimes is important. Confusingly, in the next paragraph she questions whether such stories are “of any interest to the public”. If she does believe that reporting alleged crimes is important, then do the ‘ethics’ matter? Newspapers wish to sell newspapers, true, but if the story is reported accurately and legally what does it matter? Maybe it does matter, but Jones doesn’t say why. Second, Jones claims that the Sullivan coverage has been gratuitous:

The embarrassing and humiliating information that the Oxford student press had garnered about Union politics, Sullivan’s career prospects and work-experience, his home in Kensington, his early education, his involvement in debates on socialism, and absolutely everything and anything about him has been hurled headlong into the eyes of the world.

Ok. First off, his debates on socialism were uploaded by the Union to youtube – so it’s hardly surprising that they were discovered. Jones thinks that these and other details are “embarrassing and humiliating” and, along with Sullivan’s membership of the now-infamous ‘Banter Squadron’, amount to a “character assassination”.

Now I’ll concede that many of these details are irrelevant to the core details of the allegation. But as Jones puts it, “If it weren’t for the [rape] allegations, the [Banter Squadron] story may never have made national news and would’ve likely been forgotten more quickly.” It’s not unreasonable to expect that when a relative-unknown is put under the spotlight, biographical details will be included in the story – given that the ‘Banter Squadron’ story had been in the news just that week, I don’t think it’s unethical to have mentioned it. And this isn’t just the Daily Mail’s line; as Jones notes, the Independent, Huffington Post, and BBC ran similar stories.

So I think that though Jones raises issues that make us feel uncomfortable – as I noted at the start – she struggles to establish who in the press has behaved unethically here and how. She complains that such journalism is ‘gossip-driven’ and scoop-obsessional but can’t quite put a pin on what or who has been unethical. Instead Jones reminds us about the (indisputable) evils of News of the World. To put it kindly I don’t find this vague analogy informative or convincing.

When I saw the headline of this piece, I wanted to know specifically what the author considered the press – the student press in particular – should have done differently in covering the arrest. I’m open-minded about that question, but I don’t see that Jones has tried to answer it.

update (12.09.14): no charges were brought against Sullivan

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