With British papers increasingly defying the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which restricts the publication of information harmful to the fairness of court proceedings, the extremely free American media's handling of the Tucson, Arizona shootings shows that the American experience is far from perfect, argues Roy Greenslade in the Guardian.
Due in part to the media's pre-trial coverage, Loughner's case will most likely have to be moved from Arizona to a San Diego court, reported the Washington Post, and may well still be clouded by the wake of media-induced prejudice. This is an unusual step but has occurred before in high profile cases.
Is it going too far for American newspapers to vilify Loughner as "evil" prior to his trial and prior to a professional diagnosis regarding his mental health? Yes, it appears that Jared Lee Loughner will indeed be convicted of 6 counts of murder including that of Arizona's chief federal judge John M. Roll and 14 counts of attempted murder, including that of Arizona's Representative Gabrielle Giffords, but the fact remains that he is still only alleged to have committed these crimes and has not even begun his trial.
Specifically, the New York Post demonized Loughner as the "face of evil" and Slate's Jack Shafer referred to the alleged murderer as the "living avatar of evil" while politicians such as former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor also labeled Loughner as "evil".
The use of this adjective inspired the Guardian to ask for readers' opinions on the description. One comment in response to The Guardian's poll question, "Is evil a useful concept to describe the Arizona shootings and the shooter?" reads:
"Evil? Are you kidding me? Lose the medieval moral compass. When you label someone evil you deny any possibility of understanding, or participating in dialogue, with them. This concept is responsible for an enormous amount of suffering in the world. Our unceasing war on terror is fuelled by people on both sides considering their opposition evil and so refusing to try to reach a compromise or understand each other's positions.
This man has a mental illness which makes him unable to correctly assess the consequences of his decisions. As a supposedly sane society we should not invoke (and infect ourselves) with a cultural illness when making our judgment of him."
Another comment argues that rather than archaically arguing whether Loughner is "evil", Americans should instead question how such a mentally unstable man was able to acquire a lethal weapon so easily. But nowhere do papers address the issue of gun control.
Instead, various newspapers' front pages of the Tucson shootings story focus on the sensational angle of the story. Even high quality newspapers such as the New York Times depict the criminal case as if it has already been decided, telling the reader to believe Loughner is evil and deserves capital punishment. Rather than creating an accurate representation of the alleged murderer using photographs from various parts of his 22-year life, editors across the US published an oversized, freakish mug shot of Loughner, his pale bald head reflecting a bright, florescent light, his sunken, almost black eyes glaring straight at the camera, his eyebrows peculiarly shaved, and most strangely, his mouth formed into a maniacal smirk.
Going back to one of Roy Greenslade's articles, he states that "the national [British papers] are getting away with breaches of the [Contempt of Court Act] because they are acting collectively, and no government wants to take on the whole national press." Britain's papers are bound by the innocent-until-proven-guilty concept - while this may be too restrictive, should any modification of the act take into account lessons from recent US experience?