Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


That´s why the crime of Perugia has become a unique case
La Stampa - October 5th 2011

Having spent most of September in Perugia, I know that it usually feels delightfully isolated from the outside world, except of course that it is full of foreign students, one of whom, during that month, was this English journalist. At least it did feel isolated until its Piazza Matteotti suddenly filled up with television vans when the appeal case of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito opened at the appeal court there. I am told that someone in the courtís press room spotted me walking through the town and assumed I must therefore be interested in the Knox case. The truth is, I wasnít. But the world was.

            Everyone should feel sorry for the family of the murder victim, Meredith Kercher, whose killing became almost a mere detail in the vast amount of media coverage of this trial. But we should also feel sorry for all other murder victims and their families, for the trials of those accused of their murders happen every day, with not even one-hundredth as much interest from the media as in the Kercher case.

            Why did this case, above all other cases, attract so much attention? Even the British prime minister and the American State Department felt obliged to make a comment to the media about the verdict. Well, that in itself provides a first clue: because the trial was international, which quickly made it also political.

            It is easy to forget that the person who remains convicted of Meredith Kercherís murder came from Cote díIvoire, for that countryís media is tiny. That is not true of the American and British media, however, nor indeed of the Italian media. With a British victim and defendants from both America and Italy, media interest was always likely to be strong, but also what happens in these cases is that the national media start to feed off one another, reporting on each otherís coverage, responding to each otherís coverage, and fanning prejudices about each otherís countries.

            For it is strange but true that many people, in all our countries, feel especially suspicious, or just afraid of, foreign police and foreign justice systems. Italians, who read about American accusations of the incompetence of Italian police and prosecutors, or allegations that Italyís justice system is ďmedievalĒ, might justifiably feel rather resentful and defensive in response. They would certainly be justified in pointing to the many miscarriages of justice that occur in America, ones that in murder cases even lead to the execution (eventually) of innocent men (and, much more rarely, women).

Yet there is no need to take this criticism personally, even if Silvio Berlusconiís attempts during 17 years in politics to undermine the credibility of Italian magistrates might well have encouraged this sort of prejudice. Think back to the initial French public and media response to the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then head of the IMF, on charges of raping a hotel cleaner in New York in May.

Immediately, there we

re accusations in France that American justice is unfair, and that the American way of treating arrested suspects is primitive (if you recall, they handcuffed Mr Strauss-Kahn in front of the TV cameras). Now that he has been freed and the charges have been dropped, those accusations have disappeared.

            Or, in a British context, we can think back to a previous case that dominated our newspaper headlines for years, the disappearance in 2007 of a young child, Madeleine McCann, when she was on holiday with her parents in Portugal. Pretty quickly, the British media started to accuse the Portuguese police of incompetence, bias or worse. Foreigners, after all, are easy and attractive targets. And justice systems are especially frightening, for as well as strange laws, procedures and languages, the things that are at issue are especially fundamental: life and liberty.

            There was, however, another reason why the Kercher case, now known widely as the Amanda Knox case, achieved such extraordinary international celebrity. It is that it involved women, and young, attractive ones too. The vast majority of murders are done by men, even if many of the victims are female. It is fairly rare to have a female defendant, even if she was just one out of three accused. That is why, quite apart from her American nationality, the two men involved feature far less prominently, at least in the international media coverage.

            The case also, of course, featured sex and drugs, though that is sadly true of many criminal cases. The media, along with its readers and viewers, love an exotic story, and this was certainly one, involving as it did the private lives and apparent debauchery of young, attractive women living in a faraway and, to that same audience, seemingly romantic land.

            In other words, the story also played into a stereotype about Italy, even if only one of the people involved was actually Italian. That stereotype, of licentious, even immoral behaviour, has been much on the minds of foreign observers of Italy in recent years. And, once the trial had become a media circus, the lawyers on both sides exploited these stereotypes. The idea, encouraged by the veline culture and Bunga-Bunga, that women are either mothers, whores or witches, surely lay behind the prosecutorís description of Ms Knox last week as a lustful, diabolical creature.

            Explaining it in this way, as a trial featuring the dynamite combination of international defendants, women and Italy, it seems obvious that this was going to be a huge story. Yet I still feel surprised and rather sad about it. Perhaps in the end my surprise reflects my own biased judgement as a rather different sort of journalist.

I remember back in 1997, when news came through on a Sunday morning of the death of Princess Diana. I immediately asked a colleague: ďDo you really think this will still be a big story by Friday?Ē (when The Economist would be published). Of course it was. It became The Economistís biggest-selling issue ever, at least until 9/11.



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