Tabloid legislation – why do we bother having a government?

So, it appears that 99% of some nebulous “YOU” favour a return to the death penalty. This according to the front page of the Sun anyway, which fails to make it clear what exactly this 99% pertains to. 99% of everyone? 99% of Sun readers? 99% of people called Gary? Actually, as it turns out, it’s 99% of the 95,000 respondents to a special “You The Jury” poll – therefore roughly 85,500 people. If by law the paper were forced to edit the headline to “85,500 people want the death penalty back” the impact might be lessened somewhat, particularly once it turned out that these were 85,500 people who view voting in a newspaper’s poll as a reasonable way of registering their point of view. Granted, all of that may be tricky to fit in a headline, but they can do wonderful things with computers nowadays.

From judicious further reading it turns out that the Sun’s leader column and all but two of the writers questioned (those two being, perhaps unsurprisingly, the shock-jocks Jon Gaunt and Fergus Shanahan) come out against a return to the death penalty, but nothing makes the same impact as a booming headline and a picture of a gallows. As though, even if the death penalty were brought back in the UK, the chosen method would be hanging…

But then, my point here isn’t actually the validity of the hypothetical (and so it will remain) return of the death penalty. The arguments for and against are all so well-known by now. Suffice it to say that I am anti, and have yet to hear an argument that convinces me to change my mind – the same goes, I dare say, for those in favour, whose points are often quite reasonable. No, my point is to do with the scourge of tabloid legislation. Already we have the shadow Home Secretary backing calls for a return to executions, and Ann Widdecombe agrees. The Sun wants to usher in a “debate” on the issue, despite the fact that all the arguments for and against have been made, and anyone would think that they just wanted to horn in on the recent high-profile convictions handed down to Steve Wright and Mark Dixie to sell some extra copies.

The families of Wright’s and Dixie’s victims have in some cases made it known that they would support legislation to see the killers put to death, and one can only sympathise – it’s impossible for me to put myself in their place, as I am fortunate enough to have never lost a loved one in such a way. But without seeking to sound callous, it is not for the victim’s family to say how the perpetrator should be punished. Nor is it a matter for tabloid-based polls. We live in a representative democracy, and we elect a government every five or so years to legislate for us. Given their accountability to the electors it is their place to decide on such issues, and given that the present government – avowedly anti-death penalty for their many other faults – is currently on its third term, we should consider the decision made. On the Internet, in pubs, in everyday life the debate already exists, and to elevate it above this runs the risk of turning a serious, potent issue into a political football.

Another case of tabloid legislation arises with the continuing argument over “Sarah’s Law”. From the inception of this movement, driven by the News of the World under the tenure of Rebekah Wade, envious eyes have been cast across the Atlantic at the supposedly revolutionary “Megan’s Law”. Why, demanded the press commentators, don’t we have an equivalent law here? The swift response – “because it hasn’t worked there” – was broadly ignored amid all the placard-waving. Also ignored was the huge pile of arguments against it happening – that the vast majority of child sex abuse victims know their attackers already, that it had led to vigilantism in the US (as the NotW’s naming-and-shaming campaign did here), and that it led to a steep drop in compliance with the sex-offenders’ register, causing paedophiles to go untracked.

A very watered-down version of the law is now to be piloted in the UK, though the concerns about vigilantism and compliance are not adequately addressed, but already it’s not enough for some people.  Expressing opposition to a so-called “Sarah’s Law” can lead to great hostility, not least because the press have succeeded in making the name stick.  If you are against “Sarah’s Law”, it logically follows that you don’t share the widespread revulsion at what happened to Sarah Payne.  In terms of loaded terminology, it’s right up there with the neocons in the US naming some extremely draconian legislation “the Patriot Act” – thus making a “traitor” out of everyone who opposed it.

See, in the end, for all of the faults of our lawmakers, they at least carry out studies before acting.  If the Sun had to think before wading in on a major issue, they’d only put a paper out twice a month.

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One Response to “Tabloid legislation – why do we bother having a government?”

  1. […] jailed. The seriousness of his crimes ensures that he will not live another day as a free man. The mandatory press galoots lobbying for the return of the death penalty hop all over it. A further two sex killers are locked […]

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