Reputation Update: The Blame Game – Can lessons be learnt from the Caroline Flack tragedy?

Posted: February 21, 2020

With the recent tragic death of presenter Caroline Flack, a heated argument has ensued about who’s to blame. People have been quick to point the finger at each other. Some in the media are pointing at the CPS, others on social media blame the Press, and many are blaming social media companies themselves for enabling a hostile environment where users appear free to say whatever they want, regardless of how nasty it is.

There are no easy solutions when it comes to protecting individuals (with or without a public profile) who suffer from mental health problems or who are going through difficult times. When they find themselves repeatedly in the news for all the wrong reasons it can and has resulted in tragedy, contributing to taking them over the edge.

Perhaps I am being overly naive, but to me it’s rather straightforward. Does the public really need to know about every potential allegation involving a celebrity? Do we need to know someone is accused of wrongdoing at the stage of a police investigation, or, dare I say it, even at the point of charge? Why can’t it wait until conviction in most cases? I would argue that whilst there isn’t an answer that fits all scenarios, I am a firm believer that the public doesn’t always need to know everything. Some things should rightly remain private.

There is no doubt that elements of the media can and do go too far, and that all too often seeking urgent specialist legal advice isn’t readily available to those without fat wallets. However, isn’t the real question whether the media should be allowed to cover such stories at all? If they hadn’t been allowed to, then quite apart from there being no media coverage (some of which was very intrusive and harmful), it’s highly unlikely that there would have been much, if any, social media chatter about the situation. I don’t think it can be reasonably argued to the contrary, given that without often intrusive and inflammatory media coverage there would have likely been little or no vicious and spiteful social media trolling. People simply wouldn’t know about it and those few who did would be unlikely to gain much traction online.

Whilst facing prosecution on its own without publicity must be stressful enough, and might even be too much for some troubled individuals, I am as certain as I can be that it would be significantly less stressful than it would be with front page stories day after day, creating the environment for social media vitriol, and the knock on effect that publicity surrounding an allegation has on someone’s job even though they are to be presumed innocent until convicted.

To those who are pointing the finger at the CPS. Whilst deciding whether or not to prosecute is no doubt finely balanced in many cases, if prosecutions for alleged domestic violence only went ahead if victims wanted them to, which is effectively what would result if some commentators’ ideas were followed to their logical conclusion, it would place an enormous burden on frequently fragile victims, make victims susceptible to further intimidation and manipulation, and, quite clearly result in fewer prosecutions.

Whilst the CPS should, and I am reliably informed do, take into account the wishes of victims, it cannot be the deciding factor. Let’s not also forget that historically the CPS have been damned by the tabloids either way. If the CPS don’t pursue a celebrity, it has been frequently alleged that they are giving them special treatment.

Social media companies themselves must do much more than they have to date. Free speech, whilst obviously extremely important, shouldn’t be interpreted so widely that almost anything goes.  There must be checks and balances, and because they haven’t managed to get it right themselves I find myself in agreement with Mark Zuckerberg, when he recently said that Facebook should accept some form of State regulation, adding that he didn’t want “private companies making so many decision-balancing social equities without democratic processes”.

These issues are not straightforward, and one size won’t fit all given the issues are of a global nature, however, the fact that we are talking about how to tackle them going forwards must be a good thing.

Gideon Benaim, Partner and Head of the Reputation Protection team, Simkins LLP