“Innocent until proven guilty” – the fundamental legal and human rights principle applying to citizens in modern liberal democracies. But not a right extended by The Sun and The Daily Mirror to the friends of British backpackers Hannah Witheridge and David Miller whose bodies were found on the Thai island of Koh Tao on Monday.
The Sun’s coverage on Tuesday included the front page headline BRIT ‘KILLS HOLS PALS’ followed by a splash headline on page 9: SLAUGHTERED IN PARADISE…’BY A BRIT’ with a banner over the top of the page declaring HUNT AS PAL FLEES THAI ISLE. The Sun sleuths had it all sussed.
The fact that the Thai authorities had not even named ‘the Brit’ – who we now know to be Christopher Ware, 25, who was sharing a bungalow room with Mr Miller on the island – as a suspect did not concern The Sun. Although The Sun used speech marks around some of its claims, nowhere in the article did they attribute these claims to any person or official source.
The Daily Mirror’s approach was more subtle. It ran coverage of the murders on page 4 with the half page headline: “THE THREE OF THEM LEFT THE BAR TOGETHER AT 1AM …WE NEED TO FIND DAVID’S FRIEND” . The sub-heading was: “Police fear murderer escaped on ferry”.
Koh Tah is a small island so it might be a prudent guess to summise the murderer might have escaped on a ferry but the words in the sub-heading in context make it clear that the Daily Mirror was suggesting that ‘David’s friend’ was the murderer.
These stories need to be judged against Clause 1 of the Editor’s Code of Practice (Accuracy) – the rules by which the press has agreed to comply. This states
‘The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information…and must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.’
It was misleading and inaccurate to state that the murder was by a “Brit”. It was misleading and inaccurate to suggest that the victim’s friend was the murder suspect.
Other news outlets were able to report the story by using the proper language of responsible journalism – ‘suspected’ or ‘alleged’. The most scrupulous coverage even observed that the term “possible suspects” was the most accurate term to use because declaring someone as a suspect is an official judicial process in Thailand.
Branding someone a murderer is a serious and defamatory allegation which, it might be thought, would only be made after a criminal conviction. The fact that two national newspapers made the accusation reveals their casual and arrogant disregard for the most rudimentary press ethics – accurate reporting of the facts.
As the focus of the police inquiry moved away from Christopher Ware and his brother James on to twelve migrant workers from Myanmar, the news coverage moved swiftly on to point the finger at them instead. But police now say there is no evidence against them either.
As the police carry on with their investigation, and new suspects are identified, I wonder if the Sun and The Daily Mirror will carry on guessing who the murderer/s might be and “outing” them as such. More importantly, will they publish prompt and prominent apologies for their inaccuracies as required by the Editor’s Code? Will IPSO, the world’s toughest regulator, step in and reprimand them for their misbehaviour? I am on the edge of my seat.