Kirsty Leeds argues that a few injustices or wrong accusations of celebrities are worth bringing the issues into the daylight
On 18 July 2018, Cliff Richard walked out of court £210,000 richer after suing the BBC. They live broadcast his home being searched by police, after allegations of sexual abuse came to light. He was wrongly accused, not even charged; yet people (myself included) cannot seem to shake the idea that, perhaps he did do something. Why else would he be drafted into the backwash of the Jimmy Saville scandal? Is the media wrong for adding fuel to a fire which can ultimately lead to tarnished reputations or, in his words, “permanent psychological damage”? In my view, no.
In Richards’ trial, the BBC legally overstepped the mark. However, in wider media, and especially in cases of tabloid news or online gossip sites, the lines between truth and hyperbole are a constant blur, and often they birth the stories of celebrity defamation which can lead to a lingering, and usually rightful, sense of mistrust from the public. Moreover, despite Richards’ winning case, which is extremely rare, I feel it is worth the struggle he went through in order to expose the true criminals in the press.
For example, in the case of Harvey Weinstein, The New York Times broke the story and the publicity allowed countless other women to come out of the woodwork and share stories they had kept secret for years. This is because the media had finally given them a platform on which to speak. From this explosion of insight into the dirty side of Hollywood, and the exposure of misconduct of very well-known industry professionals, came a criminal investigation against Weinstein and others, giving momentum to the global MeToo movement. This allowed people to share their experiences and campaign for better. This shows how the media can help victims of sexual harassment and abuse to get justice and, with this huge story, also educate the public about how rife and how wrong this behaviour is, and how to get help.
Unfortunately, this can be overshadowed by large amounts of hypocrisy from the media. Even reputable sources, such as the aforementioned New York Times, have perpetuated the idea that because people, specifically men, are famous, they get a free pass. “Look who’s slithered back” is an article about how comic Louis CK returned to the stage (after just nine months away from the spotlight), since admitting to sexual misconduct. When talking about men who are accused of harassment avoiding the spotlight, it states: “but they can’t, really, not if they don’t agree. Fame is too powerful.”
To some extent I think this is correct, as famous men do seem to harness more power over their reputation than famous women (e.g. Winona Ryder disappeared for 20 years after she was caught shoplifting) but, his fame does not have to be too powerful to consent a return to comedy. Just by reviewing the show, and giving this guilty sexual harasser the time of day by writing about him, is accepting him and making him more famous. “No press is bad press!”
This article discredits his victims. Especially as a comic, you cannot separate his “art” from himself; he is his comedy and reputation. After all, fame and media come hand in hand; if the media forgets about him, he is nobody – meaning he is less likely to hurt anyone else without the cloak of his celebrity status to silence his victims.
Furthermore, it could be argued that the media has no place at all when discussing issues such as sexual harassment or assault, as the media not only forgives people, but returning to the Richards case, implicates celebrities falsely, “ruining” their lives and reputations. This has raised the popular opinion for no involvement at all by the media, before the person has been charged. This idea is championed by people such as Richards and radio host, Paul Gambaccini, who was axed from the BBC because of sexual assault claims (despite them being dropped because of insufficient evidence). However, the media is, perhaps most importantly and above all, about free speech. The Met Police, for example, have a duty to protect people and to make judgements on allegations, but the media’s job is to inform; although, not to become the jury.
If Richards, or Gambaccini, were convicted, the public would be relieved at their exposure. Statistically, according to research from the home office in 2017, only 4% of sexual violence claims are false. This may be higher in high profile cases, but the point stands: a few injustices for a couple of celebrities are worth the long-awaited justice for thousands more people, who may have been ignored or not believed. The media has given them a springboard. We must support these people, believe them and, lastly, not let the press allow the abusers back into the spotlight and give them a free pass to continue.
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