Reflections on trial by media

Roseanne Bar, famous for her eponymous sitcom in the 1990s, was resoundingly sacked from her revived show after a series of idiotically racist tweets directed at former senior adviser to Barack Obama, Valerie Jarrett. Rather repulsively, Barr later claimed she did so under the influence of sleeping pills.

Barr joins the ranks of celebrities who’ve been stripped of their shows after an abhorrent disgrace, usually to do with racism or sexual scandal. Kevin Spacey, perhaps a bigger fish than Barr, was likewise removed from House of Cards after a series of allegations emerged about his conduct.

After months of speculation, Roseanne will return in all but name with its cast and crew (minus its lead), and House of Cards is also coming back with Robin Wright in the principal role.

In both cases, there was a tense interregnum of speculation as to what would happen to each show in the fallout of their primary actor’s downfall. What’s never really given much attention though is the massive infrastructure that supports these shows. Audiences and the press tend to only see the leads and seldom the production staff and the logistics that make up a programme.

And they should. The major let down of any actor being fired, save for the sadness that they’ve inflicted hurt and criminality, is that they’ve let their fans down, too. In good conscience, I can never again enjoy something featuring Kevin Spacey. Nevertheless, the responsibility that these actors have to their production team goes beyond loyalty and into the basics of them paying the bills.

Whenever a star gets dismissed, they take down with them an entire base of personnel that made the creation of that show possible. These people, sometimes in their thousands for a movie, are innocent bystanders to the alleged behaviour of one person.

In the case of Roseanne and House of Cards, I have a feeling the fight for the continuation of these shows came from within as much as it did from fans. The return of these shows is really about protecting the livelihoods and jobs of those behind the camera rather than artistic continuity. Barr’s tweets and the behaviour of Spacey are a disgrace with no defence. What people should remember is, when calling for their heads, they’re also calling for the employment of hundreds of people.

We have, as a society, moved into the habit of trial by media. There’s an argument for and against this kind of press freedom. Harvey Weinstein would never have been exposed, nor Jimmy Saville for that matter, if the press had not correlated and published accusations that emerged in their dozens. With Spacey, like others before him, the credibility of the allegations are underpinned by their number and the detail of each account.

There is little doubt that Spacey is guilty of grossly inappropriate behaviour given he gave an attempted apology masked by his announcement that he was gay. In itself, this has precipitated more people to come forward and, as the months have shown, the media attention has justified the result much like in the case of Weinstein.

Sir Cliff Richard’s privacy case against the BBC offers an alternative example. Richard was awarded an initial £210,000 in damages over the BBC’s reporting of a 2014 raid on his home that was part of an investigation into historic child sex allegations. The singer, who was publically named, was never arrested or charged and the judge presiding said that while the case “might be of interest to the gossip-monger” it was not a “genuine public interest” case.

Accusations levelled against former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond are of the same ilk. Salmond has been accused of sexual harassment, and his reputation is in the mud while an investigation is still underway. Like a suspension in Hollywood, the Scottish National Party in Holyrood is now under pressure from opposition benches to suspend Salmond’s membership of the party.

Where is the middle ground in the future? Would an indefinite suspension, pending investigation and court action, not be more justified given that it’s not just one person who is in danger of losing their livelihood, but the people in the programme they lead? Tweeting is a public forum, Barr’s idiocy was there for all the world to see. If their anonymity is not guaranteed, shouldn’t stars accused of a crime only be suspended until they have had an opportunity to answer their accusers through due process?

There is no easy answer. As soon as a news story breaks, a production company is placed in the impossible position of being seen to side with their star by not taking action or cutting their losses for the sake of their image. Netflix cut ties with Spacey as a result of the allegations, a decision that cost the streaming service about $39 million.

No singular creed can answer each circumstance. ‘Liability’ and ‘justice’ are two different words that encompass a variety of interests and situations. Is it right to sack someone without due process and a guilty verdict? Is it right not to do in fear they may strike again?

There is no universal answer save for the desperate clinging to that old adage, ‘innocent until proven guilty’. If nothing else, and at no other time, has this seemed a more urgent ethos.

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