I remember the day of Michael Jackson’s verdict. I was young enough that the memory is hazy; young enough that I knew who Michael Jackson was; too young to have started listening to his music. A TV camera hovered above a court house baked in sun. The whole event was televised. I remember watching it, even though not a lot was happening, because the outcome of the trial seemed important. Quite why I couldn’t at the time explain: I had a vague feeling that Michael Jackson was himself significant, or, more particularly, that his character was significant, and that he had committed a horrific crime and was about to receive his deserved punishment and somehow this moment of transition from him being ‘definitely guilty’ to him being declared officially guilty was powerful and entertaining. So I watched TV images of cars driving along roads and crowds of journalists hustling one another outside of the court and brief expert analyses and on the ground updates.
Michael Jackson was acquitted, of course, and I felt disappointed.
I didn’t pay attention to another ‘case’ of this kind – excepting a curiosity about Amanda Knox that was as much driven by an adolescent wonder at the idea that people just a little older than I could go to foreign countries and (allegedly) have threesomes – until a few weeks ago, when my friend pointed me towards the ‘case’ of Dylan Farrow’s accusations in The New York Times against her adoptive father Woody Allen, and to the volume of comment and discussion that it had provoked from most of the highbrow parts of the US media. There were pro-Woody denialists, pro-Woody apologists, pro-Dylan campaigners, and a large amount of very thought provoking debate about the status of the victim-accuser in this sort of ‘case,’ particularly because in this ‘case’ the criminal-accused was so famous and so revered that there was a vast power imbalance and a lot of people (myself included) had a gut reaction that Woody Allen couldn’t be guilty for the essential and irrational reason that we didn’t want the guy who made Annie Hall to be a child-rapist.
As the ‘case’ has progressed to date – to the pages of The New York Times: accusation and rebuttal, no cross-examination of the witnesses, objection! – Allen cannot, of course, actually be guilty, in a legal sense. He is not on trial and cannot be subject to legal penalties, not while the ‘charges’ against him are only made in newspapers. And at this point, for better or for worse, it doesn’t look likely that the ‘case’ will ever go to court. Such accusations are unbearably hard to prove; this is why the debate will often resort to both sides tarnishing the other’s good name. In a case with no evidence, character is really all you can go on. And all cases that primarily exist in newspapers lack evidence.
There are two senses of character that are important here: the idea of a person’s moral fibre, and thus their credibility (an assumption which is at best dubious), and the idea of character in the sense that novels or films have characters. When these ‘cases’ reach a certain critical mass of media coverage, they become closer to novels than to legal proceedings. Lee Siegel, writing in The New Yorker, points out the similarities between the complexities of the Farrow-Allen debate and the kind of hushed, perspectival fiction of Henry James and Ford Madox Ford, where the reader weighs up the stories of various less-than-reliable witnesses to an event that is never objectively described, only approached circumlocutiously under a veil of bias and self-interest.
Great literature, and in particularly this kind of literature concerned with the complexities of individual psyches and perspectives, with what James calls ‘going behind’ and investigating interiority, cultivates great empathy. Indeed, in a novel where the details of the crimes themselves have been stripped out, all that’s left is the characters’ responses. The pleasure of reading this kind of book is not in uncovering the hidden events, but in experiencing the marks they have left. The argument for empathy is a little old fashioned now, and perhaps there are good reasons for not reviving it more broadly. But in the context of Jamesian entertainment news, I think it is crucial. In James, the events, the facts of the case, are secondary, hidden, almost distasteful; in entertainment news, the facts are what come first. There is no probing of, say, Oscar Pistorius’s mindset without the fact of a woman’s death. And in this onrush of facts, empathy gets left behind.
I was recently eavesdropping on some middle aged people on a train talking about Oscar Pistorius’s trail. ‘Of course he’s guilty,’ opined one, ‘he shot six times, he wouldn’t do that if he weren’t trying to kill.’ The nature of this kind of public debate seems to me to be captured in that one remark: the judgment, the sense of moral superiority, the insistent reading of the characters of those involved, the selective knowledge of the ‘facts of the case’, and the citation of them confidently, like the detective in an Agatha Christie novel. The complete lack of doubt: the lack even of an acknowledgement that the armchair reader, at a distance of thousands of miles, reliant on third or fourth of fifth hand accounts to reconstruct the complex psyche of a person or people in crisis, has any reason to even slightly equivocate or hedge or admit uncertainty.
The fact of the matter is that these ‘cases’ are inseparable from their legal or quasi-legal contexts. They exist in anticipation of judgement; they are framed by the narrative that, eventually, the party will be found guilty or innocent. There is little room in such a reductive binary for empathy. In the courtroom, this approach is reasonable, but everywhere else it is problematic. The legal context encourages the readers of entertainment news to view themselves less as readers of Jamesian novels and more as readers of detective stories, with definitive, discernible events, and clear heroes and villains. They will examine the available information, uncover the clues, deduce the sequence of events, dish out moral culpability and eagerly await the cathartic pleasures of deserved punishment.
This kind of legal framework justifies a whole host of the readers’ character flaws. In the name of public interest, of upholding public morals, of pronouncing sound judgement, the reader is allowed the privilege of examining the facts of the case, as jurors must themselves examine all the evidence of the trial – the bloody dagger, the gruesome crime scene photos, the precise recollection of the details of sexual abuse – no matter how discomforting. For the readers these details will always be less discomforting because they have been mediated by the media’s reporting and their burden shared amongst a jury of thousands. And the reader can always choose when to stop their examination.
The reader’s continued attention is always a matter of choice and interest, not of duty. This is entertainment news, after all, a strange real novel, a source of speculation and water-cooler small talk. When the reader makes the choice to continue paying attention, to continue to follow BBC News’s live-tweeting of the Pistorius trial, they do so because in some way they are entertained. There are substantial ethical problems with this entertainment, not least of which are associated with the potential damage to reputations that can result from false prosecutions of innocent parties by such trials by media.
In the rush of public outrage and judgement and legalism, it is all too easy to forget that your entertainment news is predicated on private tragedies and unimaginable misery – often for both alleged wrongdoers and their alleged victims. Both parties are subject to the public’s thoughtless scrabble to invade their privacy by tracing their movements and love affairs. Both are subject to their motivations and secrets being reconfigured in public space, to their self-hood being rewritten into the public categories of criminal or victim. Their misery is displayed for public pleasure, their crimes to provoke public vengeance. For us the readers, the process has become gleeful and superficial. Misery is inspected at a distance, with a focus always on the horror of the criminal, not the pain of the victim. These are tragedies played out before us. When we see them in the theatre, or worse, in our own lives, they are miserable. When we see them limited by the courtroom and the frame of the television screen, our responses are limited too. We lose empathy and pathos; all that remains are the satisfactions of vengeance.