We are permitted to be sympathetic about certain things – animals are probably top of the list, this being England, followed by little children, sick and disabled children and old people and disabled adults unless they’ve got some awkward condition we don’t understand and surely means they’re just milking the benefits system when they should be working.

At the bottom of the sympathy list are people with mental illness, offenders, drug addicts and sex workers. Which makes one reflect on how often three or all of these blend together to create a perfect smoothie of the underserving, as far as the media is concerned.

Yes, you can be sure of being told who you should be gunning for in life, and who we should be gunning towards (particularly if you’re armed, paranoid and have gypsies on your land). But then there’s the problem cases.

We’re to be sympathetic towards the girl who was raped by a stranger holding a knife to her throat, but to withhold it, at least somewhat, toward the one who claims a friend or partner forced himself on her sexually.

And people have to behave the right way when they’re facing a crisis in order to deserve our sympathy. Joanne Lees fell foul of the press for not being sufficiently tearful and for having the temerity to have a somewhat spiky personality rather than being a weeping victim. Kate McCann – not her husband, note – was thrown under suspicion for not visibly collapsing under the weight of grief. And now it’s being supposed that a photograph of the woman allegedly raped by Julian Assange standing with him and smiling 48 hours after the attack was said to have taken place could surely undermine the whole case. This notwithstanding of plentiful written evidence of victims finding they have to keep up a smiling face in the presence of their attacker for some time afterwards, because it’s someone they must needs relate to and they are still processing their experience and how they’re supposed to respond to it.

But it’s not how rape victims are ‘supposed’ to behave – the ‘good rape victim’ gets jumped on by armed man in an alleyway, while sober and not wearing anything revealing, and dutifully goes to the police straight away and presents them with all the forensic evidence so that there can’t be any ambiguity. She doesn’t, for example, wash herself thoroughly afterwards in a state of horrified shock – as many victims of rape do – or have her wish not have sex overruled by a friend or partner.

The Assange case has been an interesting one for the press. On the one side, it must be a fit-up –  they’re obviously pursuing him because of Wikileaks! On the other, he’s a pretty dreadful person – he must have done it! Of course, while you wouldn’t often see countries going to so much trouble to extradite someone for the sort of rape that some people like to call ‘not real/legitimate/rape’, that doesn’t mean he didn’t do it. Nor does the fact that he’s a bit of a git mean that he did. So the media’s thrashing around in a bit of a state, not sure who to expect us to side with here. Perhaps worst for the liberal end – ‘Possible rape victim! Ambiguous circumstances! Freedom of speech! Bit of a git! Oh dear!’

But when it comes to the black and white of who we have sympathy for, the game can be played both ways. In 2008 the press immediately sided with a tearful Karen Matthews appealing for the return of her lost daughter, Shannon. So their fury (to coin a phrase beloved of the tabloids) was redoubled at ‘Britain’s Worst Mum’ ‘Evil Karen Matthews’ when the rather flimsy and ludicrous plot was revealed. Matthews and her co-conspiritors may have been dim, but even she knew how to play the media sympathy card. The devastated mum stance will do wonders for media exposure and support – who could be unsympathetic to that?

Emotional fascism is a favourite stand of the tabloid media – ‘You must feel as we tell you to feel or you are Not One of Us’. I’ll never forget the time my mother and I were at a supermarket checkout in 2002 when the announcement came that there was to be a minute’s silence in memory of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman. That was the first I’d heard of it, I could only assume it was because the ‘Sun Said’ we should have one (I later found out I was right). But what to do? Would we be looked at askance if we failed to join in and mourn ‘appropriately’ for these girls who, while their fate was of course awful, really meant nothing to us? Who we couldn’t see any more reason to be silent for than for many other tragic events occurring all around the world?

In the end we kept talking, albeit in an undertone. No one looked askance at us. But we were both left furious at this presumption upon our feelings.

Media sentimentality is good at shutting out debate, and hiding the real issues. The murder of James Bulger is a classic case – Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were presented as two ‘devil children’. This idea of an appallingly unfortunate association between two soulless freaks of nature hid the actually more frightening truth that the behaviour of these boys was no more than emotional ignorance at its worst. They decided, as children do, to see ‘what happens if…?’  but for various reasons they lacked the empathy and understanding to see how horrifically wrong it was, or to understand the consequences. In many ways it’s frighteningly easy for something like this to happen if children are neglected and emotionally stunted as it appears those boys were. But far easier to believe pages of drooling prose about ‘evil demon boys’ than to consider the effects of childhood neglect in a frequently violent world. Trying to understand them, in the eyes of the tabloid media, would be like trying to excuse them, and anyway, there was nothing to understand. They weren’t people – they were purely ciphers of evil.

A favourite tabloid trick, I noticed, especially when someone is accused of a crime against children, is to put a close-up shot of their eyes on the front page, with a headline a la ‘EYES OF EVIL’ and you can almost hear Britain tutting over its tea ‘Oooh, yes, evil eyes – you can tell, can’t you?’ Sometimes it happens they are right and the person is found guilty. Other times, such as the murder of Jo Yeates,  the media finds a conveniently eccentric contact, in this case landlord Christopher Jeffries, and get maximum mileage from making them sound as outlandish and creepy as possible.  You’ve got to alienate the person you want to be your killer from the public, and everyone likes to play amateur detective and demonstrate why this weirdo must have done it. He liked strange, avant-garde films, don’t you know?

I’m glad to say that Jeffries received substantial damages from a couple of papers in the aftermath, but it may not make up for the harm done to him – no one’s going to read the apologies and corrections after all.

And there’s the rub – when the media turns us against the wrong person, it’s the wrong that’s the headline, and the apology that’s shoved into a corner. It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to live in the aftermath of being portrayed as a threat to society. It’s difficult to conceive the frustration of someone in the media spotlight who finds their behaviour and motives picked apart because they are not someone who slots neatly into media expectations. But saying sorry isn’t the media’s job and it doesn’t get readers reading and Twitter buzzing. Telling us who to love and hate, though, is always a winner and has a great ally in the internet where we can amplify it all for them.

Not only can falsely supposed villains not move away from their media infamy, but the media doesn’t want victims to move away from a life lived in a vale of tears. Infamously, in 2009 the Scottish Express scraped the barrel  by carrying a horrified and unbelievably sanctimonious front page about survivors of the Dunblane nursery massacre, claiming that these teenagers were having the temerity to, well, be teenagers and get drunk, post photos of themselves online flipping the bird and so forth. Because they were victims of tragedy, it was supposed they must live their life as pure and innocent monuments of grief.

Whether you’re an ‘innocent tot’, a ‘weeping victim’, an ‘ASBO yob’ or ‘creepy old man’ the press has a preserving jar of public sympathy or hatred ready for you, you lucky things, and a readership always eager to fill it.

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