Milly, the media and the perpetrator

With the mournful disappearance and death of the girl Milly, Dutch journalism appears to have entered a new era. An era with a clear division. On the one hand you have the media to whom nothing is off-limits, as long as it might lead to candy and wet-tissue television, and on the other hand, the media who try to buck the trend and maintain journalistic integrity.

If I limit myself to the national print media and Internet, then De Telegraaf, AD, Metro, Spits and GeenStijl belong to the first group, while NRC (Next), Trouw, De Pers and fortunately also de Volkskrant comprise the second group.

Whereas nothing is off-limits and journalistic and ethical rules seems to be completely tossed overboard in the first group, the newspapers in the second group report what is going on and what happened, without flouting rules of decency.

Of course, what happened is terrible and the perpetrator must be brought to justice. But does what he did give the media the right to sling mud at the perpetrator? Why do personal photos from the social networking site Hyves have to be publicized, first in GeenStijl and then in all the media from the first group?

Where does a newspaper get off completely depriving this suspect of his privacy? How low can you go when you write about the police officer Sander V. and then print his picture covering a quarter page, completely recognizable?

Why should we be able to read in the AD what the owner of a disco thought of the man who bussed tables years ago in the disco? Why is the mother of a Dutch celebrity suddenly interesting just because she once lived in the perpetrator’s neighborhood? Why does that mother respond like she is a real reporter when asked for her reaction? Does anything go, as long as you get your name in the paper? Really?

It seems like a kangaroo court in which all the stops have been opened to publicly hang this perpetrator. Can the man ever trust in an honest trial, now that he has already been prosecuted by a large part of the media?

I know, if the man hand not lured the girl in and killed her, he would not be a public figure. When you look at it that way, he brought it upon himself. It is nevertheless legitimate to ask the question: what right did the media have to take the law into their own hands and engage in a sort of public court-marshal, a process that is still going on?

Take the publication of the photos of the man, his girlfriend and cat. The perpetrator himself certainly would not have given the media the photos to publish. The photos were illegally taken from Hyves or Facebook or some other website.
Are you allowed to simply take those photos and publish them? Aren’t they subject to copyright? Sure, but all the perpetrator’s rights seem to have suddenly flown out the window because the man committed a gruesome crime.

What happens if it should become clear during the trial that the man could not be held accountable for his actions at the time of the act? Does this perpetrator still have a life after his penalty or treatment? Can one institution or prison be found in the Netherlands where he can undergo his treatment or sit out his time in anonymity?

Strangely enough, even this sad case will not lead to a journalistic debate about what can and cannot be done in the media. A newspaper or broadcaster who does not acknowledge the Board of Journalism will not be frightened off by a pronouncement by that Board about its conduct.

The perpetrator himself will have to take this to court to have the media stopped. But that perpetrator will not do that, for very understandable reasons, and so the media have carte blanche to keep doing it.

Unfortunately, this ceased long ago to be about the sad death of the girl Milly. It seems that a portion of the media is using this gruesome case to explore the boundaries. Not the boundaries of decency, because they were passed long ago, but the limits of what the public will still accept.

For some of the media, journalism has apparently devolved into nothing more than “you asked for it; we dish it out”, no matter how disgusting or repugnant.

This is a form of callousness and paucity that is worrisome, separate of the issue of whether readers and viewers really even want to know everything that is let loose on them. Incidentally, is it really about the reader or viewer anymore, or is it just about the question of whether we dare to go a step farther than our immediate competitors?

This column was originally published in De Volkskrant on March 20, 2010.

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