The last couple of weeks has thrown up one of the best examples of the contradictory nature of so-called ‘news values’. How much notice have you been taking of the long war crimes trial in the Hague in which the former Liberian President Charles Taylor faces charges? Probably not much if you are like everyone else. Long trials are not inherently newsworthy unless there is a major revelation or a verdict or sentencing statement. Media theorists might refer to this as part of the ‘narrativisation‘ of news – in this case the adoption of the conventions of the courtroom drama in which all the boring bits are passed over to concentrate on the dramatic highlights. We might expect that we wouldn’t hear much more about this trial until a verdict was announced.
The Taylor trial began in 2007, but the defence achieved a postponement for one year and the prosecution took a further year to present its evidence. The defence team presented evidence during 2009 and for much of 2010 the prosecution have been cross-examining defence witnesses. Taylor had been indicted initially in 2003. There was considerable coverage at the start of proceedings, especially as the charges relate to Taylor’s involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War. But coverage can’t be sustained – not least because of expense as well as the lack of ‘new story material’.
Now the values of entertainment and personalisation come into play (see pp 342-9 in MSB5). The cross-examination of celebrities Naomi Campbell and Mia Farrow, both of whom attended a dinner given by Nelson Mandela also attended by Charles Taylor, allows news reporting from a wide range of media outlets to focus on famous individuals and to exploit the frisson of excitement created by the conjunction of celebrity and serious crime. Of course, it also helps that Summer is a slack time for news and this story has the attraction of predictability. The initial claims about the ‘blood diamonds’ that Taylor is alleged to have given to Naomi Campbell were reported via celebrity gossip, but the court hearings are scheduled in advance. News is generally not as random as might be expected – news gatherers like to prepare in advance.
This is potentially a big news story and it easily crosses the threshold to attract attention across the globe through the use of the names of Campbell, Farrow and Mandela. But does it amount to much in the face of the real issues at stake in the trial? In the UK, the ‘serious news media’ and especially the BBC have been accused of ‘dumbing down’ yet again with their focus on Campbell in particular. What do we all think of this argument? Is it a waste of news production resources or has the attention given to Campbell brought the main story of the trial back into the general awareness of large numbers of people?