‘media framing’ and the independence of the judiciary: the case of water boarding

April 30, 2012

What follows are my  SPEAKING NOTES ON THE OCCASION OF THE NJCM-THOOLEN AWARD  on Thursday 26 April 2012, the Hague. At this gathering of the Dutch Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (NJCM) I had the honor to hand over the award for the best master thesis on human rights. 

Dear friends,

When the Dutch Lawyers Committee, in 2005, decided to make an award in my name, I was most touched, especially as they had apparently dropped the requirement that I should die first.  Being alive has the additional advantage that on occasion I will be able to hand over the award myself, which I will do with the greatest pleasure in a few moments. This pleasure is the greater as the winning master paper touched on a topic very close to my heart: the role of the media or as it is sometimes referred to the “Fourth Estate”. There is some controversy about who exactly coined the term, but the most telling statement comes from Oscar Wilde who wrote: “Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. …”. That was said in 1981 and it is hard to imagine that that Oscar Wilde would come to a different conclusion more than a century later.

Spinning (an important element in the toolkit of media framing) has become a profession and the title ‘spin doctor’ is quite appropriate as the results are indeed often doctored. There are surely great historical cases that we cannot recognise because we ourselves have been successfully framed; who knows what positive image Attila the Hun could have enjoyed if only his PR people had done a more professional job. To take a more serious and recent case: let’s look at the so-called ‘failure’ of the UN in Somalia. This was a combined UN-US operation with a humanitarian mandate. When in October 1993, 18 U.S. Rangers were killed in a fierce battle with Aideed’s forces and television showed the body of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets, American public opinion overnight turned against further U.S. involvement in Somalia and Clinton pulled out all troops soon afterwards. Although the Rangers were part of Washington’s own separate Somalia operation, and the US did not want to function under UN command, the incident was played and replayed as a major “UN failure.” The UN was widely, and wrongly, blamed for the gruesome deaths of the U.S. Rangers, despite the fact that they were not part of the UN operation, something that President Clinton finally acknowledged in 1996. Yet most people around the worlds continue to hold the UN responsible. I am afraid that each of us can probably come up with a favorite case of the media having got the better of the truth but that should not be tonight’s debate.

Laura Henderson in her paper “Tortured reality” has gone one important step further. She has investigated how media framing of waterboarding affects judicial independence. She had to limit herself to the US judiciary and to the specific case of ‘waterboarding’ in order to create an environment stable enough to draw some statistical conclusions. Her research is done very neatly. She makes clear that the concept of independence of the judiciary has always been defined broadly and not just as a prohibition of interference by the state, although that remains the classical background.  Cases of media pressure are dealt with in jurisprudence but they have always been considered in the context of an independent judge who is well-trained and not easily swayed by what the flimsy press has to say. The little jurisprudence there is does not contemplate a case of wilful, orchestrated influencing of all the media with the purpose of changing the perception and language of an existing concept.

What makes the study of Henderson stand out that it exactly tries pin down to what extent this has happened with the question whether the technique of ‘waterboarding’ changed in the minds of the judges after the 11 September watershed (no pun intended). The torrent of rhetoric not only framed everything in a ‘war’ context but also specifically tried to downplay the labelling of waterboarding as torture. And she did find the evidence. I will not reveal it all – you have to read for yourself the whole article once the NJCM has rightly published it. Laura herself indicates that further work is needed on how the independence of the judiciary is undermined by media framing and I hope that will be the case. She also gives some very useful indications of how the media framing could be countered, e.g. by strengthening the pluriformity of the media and raising the awareness of the judiciary. She describes her recommendations as ‘simple, yet effective”.  Here I beg to differ. There is nothing simple about changing the media landscape, especially if one adds the television and social media, which her study understandably had to leave out. The magnitude and multitude of media is such that no-one can really do much about it. All recent studies on the effect of the internet on our information intake show that they tend to solidify the dominant opinions/news/books etc, while giving great potential to small niche items, including the nutty and the genial. What gets squeezed is the moderate, considered, well-argued, balanced stuff in the middle. My fear is that the voice of the NJCM may well have the qualities described above!

In the end there can be only one winner. A feature of almost any award and painfully brought home two days ago in Geneva where I was for the announcement of the 3 nominees for 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders. All 3 nominees are extremely courageous Human Rights Defenders (Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, the multimedia monk form Cambodia, and Shirin Ebadi’s former lawyer: Nasrin Sotoudeh) and the Jury making the final choice on 2 October will have a hard time.

Still, the hard choices have been made already for the NJCM Thoolen Award – may I take this occasion to thank the Jury and Franka for their excellent work – and I am proud to hand over the prizes to the 3 finalists.

3 Responses to “‘media framing’ and the independence of the judiciary: the case of water boarding”

  1. […] This blog has always taken a special interest in this aspect of human rights work [see e.g. https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/media-framing-and-the-independence-of-the-judiciary-the-cas…]. This post by Rachel Krys focuses on the United Kingdom but much is relevant to other European […]

  2. […] Poppelaars Het recht op bronbescherming: Hoe verder na Voskuil en Sanoma? 2011: Laura Henderson  [https://thoolen.wordpress.com/2012/04/30/media-framing-and-the-independence-of-the-judiciary-the-cas…] Tortured reality. How media framing of waterboarding affects judicial independence 2009: Erik van […]

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