Why you probably won’t hear much about #HelpLeeJungHee in the media for a while
Recently a woman and her sons’ accounts of alleged abuse at the hands of her husband have been gaining a lot of attention online both inside and outside Korea. As a result of the internet postings many people have been trying to gain international attention and media coverage for the cause – so far to little luck.
I am not going to rehash any of the allegations which indicate systemic sexual, physical and emotional abuse over years but instead try to explain some of the factors why it has not been covered widely in the media. First we will look at legitimate reasons that concern good, ethical journalistic practice before diving into the darker stuff.
In order to illustrate what can be quite abstract concepts, I will be returning to examples throughout relating to the historical child abuse allegations which are currently being investigated in the UK after decades of silence.
Initially when these allegations came to the surface they concerned mostly entertainers – first the late Jimmy Saville and then a number of others. As things progressed more and more allegations stacked up against politicians and most recently a debate has begun over whether Lord Janner, a former member of parliament, should stand trial given reportedly being in advanced stages of dementia.
Given the scale and seriousness of this entire scandal, it’s a good case study for the reporting of serious abuse by people in power and the BBC alone has shown both some of its best and some of its worse journalism of recent years in the wake of these revelations.
It is standard procedure in all good, ethical journalism to have at least two trustworthy and verifiable sources to back up any serious statements made. This is particularly important in cases where serious allegations are made which could potentially be viewed as libellous if untrue.
Sexual abuse allegations are very serious indeed and false ones have the potential to destroy an innocent person’s reputation. Although victims of this kind of abuse very, very rarely make up their stories, it does occasionally happen and there are very serious and expensive consequences if a news organisations publish false allegations.
This happened in 2012 when the BBC broadcast a testimony from a man that claimed to have been abused by a senior at-that-time Government politician. Although they never ran his name, it was clear to many members of the public that the man concerned was Lord McAlpine who then faced a barrage of abuse on Twitter.
The victim in the story then came forward saying he had misidentified his abuser and that it was not the politician. This came with heavy consequences for the BBC. It compensated McApline with £185,000, the Director General resigned and it seriously damaged the reputation of Newsnight, one of its most internationally-recognised news programmes.
It’s because of these kind of serious consequences that investigations into these kinds of allegations can take months or even years to be published or broadcast – requiring a large amount of money and resources which many modern news organisations simply no longer have. There’s a reason why these allegations only took off the ground after the BBC’s biggest investigative news programmes – some of the only groups that can still afford this kind of journalism – took on the subject.
A good example of how this kind of subject matter can be handled sensitively was BBC Radio 4 The World at One’s episode David’s Story which went into detail about one man’s experience being abused and exploited by a number of powerful and influential men in the late 1970s. The beginning of the episode is worth the listen for its discussion of how to report on alleged sexual abuse which brings up much of what is covered here. The most important thing to note is that, even with months of investigation, the programme-makers still chose to remove any reference to specific individuals except for those who had already been charged. That’s how difficult it is to definitely prove this kind of allegation.
The time, expense and difficulty collecting corroborating evidence are the main legitimate reasons why journalists and editors may choose not to investigate or publish stories of this nature or why this kind of story can take months or even years to come to print or air. It also explains why the vast majority of abuse coverage you will see in the media relate to ongoing or concluded court cases where the allegations have already been made in an official, public forum.
But on top of this there are a number of less legitimate, bigger problems which give journalists in Korea reason not to pursue this kind of investigation.
When the BBC wrongly implicated Lord McAlpine in child abuse, they had to pay a substantial fine. Had this taken place in Korea, there is a good chance a number of staff members could have found themselves in jail – potentially for years.
Korea’s criminal defamation laws, as we have previously covered, can be a serious impediment to good journalism as the threat of going to prison – in some case even if what was said was true – is a constant threat which hangs over the head of journalists working in Korea. It can and has been used to silence critics of the government and other powerful individuals and groups.
The issue of media ownership is also an important one. There have been allegations over the years of the government and large corporations exerting undue influence over the Korean media. Last year the government was accused of ordering KBS President Gil Hwan-young to cover the Sewol crisis positively and of appointing the people who would cover the Blue House (the Korean equivalent of the White House). Big business has also been accused of holding too much influence over the media at various points.
If, as has been put forward, the alleged abuser holds a lot of power this could also pose a number of problems for any investigating journalists. Aside from anything, if they have substantial finances, they are more likely to be able to prosecute for libel – again holding the threat of prison over the heads of investigators.
Finally, one of the things that held back the British investigations for so long and what may also hold back this case is public attitudes towards domestic and sexual abuse. Until very recently marital rape was not a crime in South Korea and, although it is changing rapidly, the view that family matters should be kept within the family is still fairly common.
If only 5% of what is alleged in the series of online testimonies is true, it’s a horrifying and shocking series of events for which the perpetrators should face serious punishment. If the entirety of the allegations are true, serious and long-reaching investigations should be undertaken both by journalists and, most importantly, the police to see how endemic this problem is or could have been.
But it will involve a major uphill battle and if the truth does out, we shouldn’t expect it for a long time to come.