‘Trial by media’ demonstrates the power of the rising news media and its influence on policing philosophy in the UK

‘Trial by media’: Policing, the 24–7 news mediasphere and the ‘politics of outrage’

From Theoretical Criminology

This article examines the ‘trial by media’ that preceded Sir Ian Blair’s dramatic decision to resign as London Metropolitan Police Commissioner on 2 October 2008. It aims to construct a theoretical framework for researching how the interconnected spheres of news media politics, party politics and police politics coalesced to create a mediatization process in which Britain’s most senior police officer could be publicly ridiculed, baited, cajoled and relentlessly hounded by an increasingly antagonistic press. This research indicates that this situation laid down a clear symbolic marker about what ‘type’ of Commissioner and policing philosophy is acceptable in contemporary Britain, and demonstrated the power of the rising news media ‘politics of outrage’. Blair’s ‘politically correct’ policing was at odds with the conservative wave of public opinion demanding a tougher ‘law and order’ response to ‘Broken Britain’.



This article analyses the changing nature of news media–police chief relations. Building on previous research (Greer and McLaughlin, 2010), we use the concepts of ‘inferential structure’ (Lang and Lang, 1955) and ‘hierarchy of credibility’ (Becker, 1967) to examine former Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) Commissioner Sir Ian Blair’s ‘trial by media’. We focus on the collective and overwhelmingly hostile journalistic reaction to Blair’s declaration in 2005 that: (a) the news media are guilty of ‘institutional racism’ in their coverage of murders; and (b) the murders of two 10-year-olds in Soham, 2001, received undue levels of media attention. A sustained period of symbolic media annihilation in the British mainstream press established a dominant ‘inferential structure’ that defined Blair as the ‘gaffe-prone Commissioner’: his position in the ‘hierarchy of credibility’ was shredded, and his Commissionership de-legitimized. The unprecedented resignation of an MPS Commissioner is situated within the wider context of ‘attack journalism’ and the rising news media ‘politics of outrage’.

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Article details

Greer, C., & McLaughlin, E. (2011). ‘Trial by media’: Policing, the 24-7 news mediasphere and the ‘politics of outrage’ Theoretical Criminology, 15 (1), 23-46 DOI: 10.1177/1362480610387461

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