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She showed little emotion

Updated: Oct 2, 2018

Two things to know about me that are relevant here:

  • I have spent the last five years coaching men and women in prison.

  • I decided to have a day off from watching the news on the morning of Brexit. That 'day off' has continued till now.

I was just in the car driving home and as I turned the radio on I caught a news item about a council worker who stole money from the Grenfell donations being sent to prison. And the reporter made the statement: “She showed little emotion as she was sentenced to five and a half years in jail.”

And that statement has really got under my skin.

Because that’s the thing with news, I realised, when I stopped watching it, reading it and seeking it out. It’s sort of 5% news and a 95% hybrid of agenda, opinion, speculation and titillation.

Take this example. The news is that the woman stole the money, was found guilty and was sentenced to prison.

But that statement – she showed little emotion – what’s that?

Is it a fact? It may have been factual to say, “She didn’t cry, or cry out, or wince or scream.” But to say she showed ‘little emotion’ is an interpretation. If, for example, the emotion she was feeling was shock then a certain absence of crying or shrieking would be appropriate.

Why is this statement included in the piece? What’s its purpose? If it doesn’t add to the piece factually then it makes me wonder, why is it there?

Whether the journalist intended it or not, it feels leading; an invitation for the listener to automatically conflate one thought with another to create a potentially inaccurate – but titillating – story:

Little emotion = emotionless = hard faced bitch.

And that just bothers me.

What are we saying here? That we expect our criminals to visibly perform their remorse in the dock? And just how much emotion is the right amount? How does one perform remorse for victims as opposed to regret for one’s family or sorrow for oneself? Would one silent tear do the job? A theatrical sob and a hand to the chest? What exactly is a BBC approved level of emotion?

I’ve listened to the stories of many women who have been sentenced to prison for financial crime. It’s often a first offence. They may talk of the surreal, out of body experience of court. They may talk about not remembering any of it, how they weren’t really present, their brains not able to process in real time the shock of what was happening. Or they might talk about hearing their families crying out and wanting to hold themselves together so as not to distress their families further.

The stories are as various as the women themselves. But that’s not what gets reported.

‘She showed little emotion’ feels like a trope from the sack of lazy statements with which to characterise and brand female expression. Too much and we’re hysterical. Not enough and we’re hard faced bitches. Frankly, it’s just not good enough.

I believe that people who commit crimes should be punished for them.

I believe we should have a free press that can report on crimes.

But what troubles me here is formulaic reporting that doesn’t look itself in the face long enough to edit out idle judgement, speculation or titillation from its pieces. We all deserve better than that.

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