Authors: Rob Leurs
Abstract: In 2005, Dutch businessman Frans van Anraat was brought to court on charges of illegally supplying chemicals to Saddam Hussein; these chemicals were processed into poison gases with which thousands of Kurdish civilians were killed in 1988. In order to answer the question how truth and morality were encoded in news about this genocide trial, I’ve held semi-structured interviews with stakeholders in the production of journalistic reports.
The interview results show a binary position in dealing with journalistic media between on the one hand victims, lawyers, and journalists and on the other the Department of Justice and Parliamentarians. The first group has founded its involvement in producing news reports on the assumptions that media is able to show the thruth, and that this generates justice. In other words, victims and lawyers see media as guardians of a deeper (moral) truth.
Contrary, even before the trial the second group has actively developed media strategies designed to define what the trial should include (in both a legal and a moral sense), what the events underlying the trial are, what the construction of criminality is and those who belong to it, etc. These media strategies have, as was explicitly intended, influenced the legal process.
These findings have implications for our ideas of the relation between media and justice: the classic idea of ‘trial by media’ must be supplemented by the concept of ‘media/trial’. ‘Trial by media’ implies that media and justice function parallel to but independently of each other: media negatively impact an individual’s reputation by creating the notion of guilt prior to and/or independently of the court’s verdict. The concept of 'media/trial’ goes beyond that: it assumes that media can be used strategically to influence the outcome of a trial. The case of Frans van Anraat does not stand alone: expert interviews have shown that also in other European and American trials media are actively employed by e.g. Departments of Justice to steer judicial processes.
Keywords: Crime news; Expert interviews; Journalism; Litigation PR; Media production; Media theory; Media/trial; Participation culture; Trial by media.