In My Opinion: Francis Shennan: The media coverage of the death of soldier, Lee Rigby

AN innocent man is knifed to death on the streets of a British city in an attack police described as “swift, vicious and cowardly”. The blows were so violent they penetrated from the back to the front of the body.

The story made five national newspapers, but not the front pages. This victim was not soldier, Lee Rigby, but 75 year-old Mohammed Saleem.

Mohammed’s death sparked outrage, but not to the same degree. It was fully reported but has not raised the same concerns as coverage of Lee’s murder.

I was invited on to BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye programme yesterday to discuss the coverage but there was too little time to do so properly. For, few recent stories have highlighted so many issues in such a short time – and it continues to do so.

How far can we express our thoughts about it? Today, it’s being reported that two men have been arrested under the Public Order Act on suspicion of inciting racial or religious hatred in tweets about Lee’s death.

How much should we report? Reports The Guardian, ITV News edited an alleged confession from a Michael Adebolajo, as he held a bloody machete, but they still showed him vowing to take “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.

The Sun published what he said in full and published a close-up of the dead soldier’s body, although they pixellated the area showing his head.

It’s understood that, from the millions who will have viewed the terrible content, several hundred have complained, with a reported 800 having been made by yesterday lunchtime, 500 of them relating to ITV’s coverage.

The footage was not shot by a journalist but a member of the public on a Blackberry. And, today, more footage has been appearing from other members of the public, which is what they are. In this instance, at least, they are not citizen journalists.

So we have questions of taste, editorial judgement and law. On the whole, I think the media got it right.

This was a major news story and showing the video of a man with bloodied hands and a machete was justified. Some viewers are believed to have complained about children being frightened by the images, in spite of the warnings broadcasters put out in advance of screening them.

That’s a reason for parents to censor what their children watch not to censor the news.

It was also unlikely to provide a platform for terrorist opinions. One of my fellow radio guests yesterday mentioned the “oxygen of publicity”, an argument used by the late Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, to block the voices of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. Back then, from the late 1980s, the only people to benefit were the voice-over artists who read their words.

That leaves the legal situation. An apparent confession reported in full, images of incriminating evidence and prejudicial material shown on news channels all evening. Contempt of court, surely?

English courts allow for what is known as the ‘fade factor’, relying on the time it takes for cases to reach court for details to fade from the minds of potential jurors. Scottish procedure is speedier which is one reason our courts are stricter about contempt.

There is now the complicating factor that these details will still be available online to jurors, and we know some jurors ignore judges’ warnings about looking up such information. However, many jurors play by the rules and make a serious attempt to try cases fairly.

In the meantime, out of the spotlight, my understanding is that police are still hunting for the killer of Mohammed Saleem.

Francis Shennan is director of and Visiting Lecturer in journalism and law at Westminster, Stirling and Strathclyde Universities.