"On the balance of probability," said Fiona Wilcox, the Westminster coroner working on the inquest, MI6 officer Gareth Williams was "unlawfully killed". Stating that this could not be definitively established and that the case may never be satisfactorily explained, Wilcox also lamented that the "unusual circumstances" ? Williams's body was found in a padlocked holdall in the bath of his London flat ? had immediately generated "endless [media] speculation" about his personal life, to the dismay of his family.
Days before Wilcox delivered her verdict, newspapers carried stories about Williams's sexual practices, suggesting that they played a part in his death without waiting for Wilcox to assert her certainty that they did not. Here is the latest example of how the press can "monster" victims, or alleged perpetrators of crimes if they are thought to have diverged from conservative sexual or gender norms, sensationalising personal details (which they've often made considerable effort to root up) in search of saleable stories.
At its worst ? during the hunt for Joanna Yeates's killer, for example ? this can deny someone their reputation and right to a fair trial. In this case, as in many others, it perpetuates a victim-blaming culture, the implication that Williams's tastes caused his demise being intertwined with homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, and a curious mixture of fascination and contempt for BDSM and those who partake in it.
This prurience is as old as the mass media itself. In the Victorian era, the argument about whether or not details about sexual or gender variance should be published ostensibly concerned public morality. As Boulton and Park, two cross-dressers charged with "conspiring and inciting others to commit unnatural offences", awaited trial in 1870-71, the Society for the Suppression of Vice urged newspapers not to document the case. The Pall Mall Gazette refused, but long before Rupert Murdoch got near it, the Times covered everything, including the "medical examination" to which the Metropolitan police illegally subjected Boulton and Park in an attempt to prove that they'd had anal sex, arguing that "its novel and extraordinary features" made it sure to be "of interest to hundreds and thousands" (and, as such, hugely profitable).
Step forward into the 21st century and the terms have changed. It's no longer a matter of the press protecting the public from apparently unspeakable practices, but preventing the press from invading the public's privacy, especially if editors or journalists think aspects of their lives can be easily sold. This is a constant issue for Britain's transgender population: Trans Media Watch presented twice to the Leveson inquiry about how newspapers "out" trans people for solely exploitative reasons, often accompanying their articles with "before and after" photos, old names and anything else that will undermine their hard-fought identities, usually to their great distress.
The nastiest instance ? one that parallels the coverage of Williams, rife with speculation about the women's clothing in his home ? came when human rights lawyer David/Sonia Burgess was pushed on to the track at King's Cross tube station in October 2010. The tabloids revelled in their "man in a dress" headlines as their journalists trawled through transgender contacts sites for information on Burgess's private life, all published before an arrest was made. With so much made public about Burgess and the defendant, who was also trans, no trial could start from a neutral position, and besides dancing close to the legal line, this coverage served to intimidate anyone else trying to keep their gender variance out of the public eye, magnifying their fears that its revelation may harm their relationships or careers.
The staggeringly irresponsible behaviour of the media over recent decades, as the balance of power between parliament, the police and the press became untenably skewed, is finally being exposed, and the consequences remain to emerge. Will newspaper owners and editors realise that, with their power, comes responsibility not to prejudice investigations, or attack people of trans histories or alternative sexualities just because they can? Will they learn that just because the public may be interested in an angle, or a story, this does not mean that it is in the public interest? Will they ask themselves: whatever happened to "innocent until proven guilty" ? or respect for the dead?
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