Sully at Oxford: Journalism needs a change of heart

Morwenna Jones 8 May 2014

It all started as just a bit of a joke. Oxford Union Society President Ben Sullivan accusing a student newspaper of defamation after being revealed as a member of a drinking society named ‘the Banter Squadron’. Now, controversy has followed in the wake of this scandal with humiliating details of every aspect of his life strewn across the national papers, following his arrest yesterday on suspicion of rape.

For the media, it’s Christmas come early.  A student at one of the country’s most prestigious universities, an alumnus of the prestigious £22,000-a-year St Paul’s School, and a member of  the ‘Banter Squadron’, Sullivan is just what we’ve been waiting for.  In an example more extreme than Caesarean Sunday, privilege and lad-culture have combined to create a truly abhorrent human being. Or so they would have you believe.

What happens if, as may be the case, Sullivan is not prosecuted?  What happens if the charges are dropped?  What happens if we haven’t caught a perpetrator of one of the worst crimes humanity can commit and a truly-awful human being by extension, and have instead completely tarnished the reputation of an innocent, bright, student with a promising career ahead of him?

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. We need only look to MP Nigel Evans, recently cleared of similar charges who admitted to considering suicide in the “darkest moments”, to witness the devastating consequences this media-frenzy would have in that instance.

One solution would be to grant anonymity to suspects of high profile crimes like these until charges can be confirmed.  Only last year, leading criminal barrister Maura McGowan spoke up in favour of protecting suspects’ identities.  Backed by falsely-accused defendants, McGowan argued that “the damage that can be done to somebody's life, a teacher, doctor or priest, can be overwhelming if it turns out at the end of the case that the allegation isn't true”.

She has a point, as we might see if Sullivan is cleared of all charges, yet what she fails to see is how identifying suspects can help more victims come forward. To use a separate issue as an example, few would deny that the public identification of Jimmy Saville as a child-abuser did not incite a wave of women to come forwards and talk about their experiences at his hands.

So what else can we do?  A second option is to revert back to focusing on the media and to ask ourselves, have we gone too far?  Of course, reporting and identifying 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?

I’m sure all investigative journalists would dearly love to believe that while rummaging through endless facts of little importance, they are in fact identifying mass-murderers, rapists, drug-dealers, and a host of other unpleasant individuals. The sad reality is that they are not. The majority are motivated by a culture of ‘scoop’ journalism in which the journalist’s near-obsessional semi-erotic desire to ‘get the scoop’ outweighs any consideration of the extent to which the story is actually of any interest to the public and, more worryingly, whether or not it’s actually true.

This burning desire for the ‘scoop’ and to break hard-hitting news saw News of The World fold after writers at the paper were exposed as having hacked into the voicemail messages of murder victim Millie Dowler in 2011. It was also revealed that they’d hacked the phones of members of the Royal family, families of British soldiers killed in action and families of victims in the 7/7 bombings.  None of these ‘investigations’ can be justified as a quest to bring important information to the surface and can all be accused of invasion of privacy.

As a result, the “culture, practice and ethics of the press” were forced into scrutiny in the Leveson Enquiry. Now, almost two years after the publication of the inquiry’s report, phone hacking and bribery are, within the press at least, seen as no-go-zones. Denied of ‘juicy’ stories like the diagnosis of Gordon Brown’s son, Fraser, with cystic fibrosis (which Rebekah Brooks famously rang the politician about, begging him not to reveal any details and spoil her exclusive) the media has had to find other ways to make stories more enthralling for its gossip-hungry readers.

Consequently, Sullivan’s private life has been, as MP Nigel Evans said of his own experience, ‘thrown into the full glare of world publicity’.  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.

To be a victim of character assassination at university is one thing. Of course it’s unpleasant to be exposed as a member of ‘the Banter Squadron’ (though what exactly that entails is unclear). Such a ‘news’ story is merely at the extreme end of the typically poor, gossip-driven behavior of some student journalism.

If it weren’t for the allegations, the story may never have made national news and would’ve likely been forgotten more quickly than the Daily Mail’s Caesarean Sunday coverage.  Now, in order to flesh out a story of simple fact (namely that a student at Oxford has been called into questioning over serious criminal allegations), coverage of the story in The Independent, The Mail, The BBC and The Huffington Post features the bare-bones of the arrest, and then fleshes it out with the surrounding scandalous details from the original gossip-filled article.

Little of the coverage manages to mention Sullivan’s open letter that was published in Cherwell.  In the letter, which has since been removed from Cherwell’s website, he apologizes repeatedly while maintaining his position that much of the information about him has been untrue. Now, without even his apology to support him, Sullivan has been publicly humiliated.  As the University of Oxford and the rest of the world await the outcome of this scandal, we have to step back and think about the importance of privacy and what we report as well as how we report it.

This isn’t some history essay in which you can portray Richard III as a monster by failing to mention any positive thing about him. This is a game in which people are the pawns and the outcome is fixed. It’s high time things became fairer.