The Strange Case of Coline Covington

It’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.” – David St. Hubbins (Spinal Tap)

Coline Covington is a psychoanalyst – and by all accounts a respected one. She has practised for over twenty years in London and her clients have included “senior executives, politicians, artists, writers, film-makers, and people working in the health professions”.

She hails from the USA and was awarded a BA at Princeton University, moving on to Cambridge University for postgraduate studies, subsequently gaining a doctorate in sociology from the LSE. She has worked for local authorities and the Metropolitan Police and is a former Chair of the British Psychoanalytic Council. She is a Training Analyst and Supervisor of the Society of Analytical Psychology and the British Psychotherapy Foundation. She is also former Editor of the Journal of Analytical Psychology. This is altogether an impressive resume. 

Covington also has an interesting sideline as a commentator for the UK news website The Week (daily), formerly known as the First Post, where she gives us her take on selected stories. This is where prejudice and insight collide. You might have guessed that there is a connection between Coline Covington and the Meredith Kercher case because that is the focus of this blog. You are right and I will come to that, but first a diversion into the origins of The Week.

The Week Ltd is a subsidiary of Dennis Publishing Limited, an empire founded by the late Felix Dennis. Dennis’s first claim to fame in the UK was as one of the publishers of the infamous late 1960s/early 1970s underground hippy magazine OZ. Along with Richard Neville and Jim Anderson he remodelled an Australian publication for the British market. In 1970 they invited some ‘school kids’ to edit an edition. It was controversially explicit and Dennis and his pals were prosecuted for obscenity, or more specifically “conspiracy to corrupt public morals”, which, in theory, carried a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. They were convicted of two lesser offences and sent to prison, though later released on appeal. Dennis’s sentence was shorter than that of his fellow defendants because, in the words of Judge Michael Argyll, he was “very much less intelligent” than the other two.

Undaunted, on release from prison, Dennis moved into what might be called mainstream publishing, starting with Kung Fu Monthly and quickly moving into pop music throwaway fan magazines dedicated to teen stars of the day. He expanded into IT publications, surfed the 1980s wave of home computing and by 2000 had built an empire with worldwide sales totalling $2.5 billion. Titles have come and gone over the years. The current Dennis publishing company owns over fifty magazines and digital titles – including The Week. Felix Dennis died on June 22nd 2014.

Returning to the early days of lightweight pop cash-in titles, another fisher in the same pond was John Kercher, father of the late Meredith, whose journalistic career was in the showbiz arena. He used to write about the same people that Felix Dennis exploited with his early ‘tribute’ magazines. Their paths may have crossed. The London publishing scene was much smaller in those days and it would be surprising if the main players in pop music news did not at least know of each other.

If Dennis and John Kercher were acquainted, even if only by name recognition, you might expect Dennis to feel a strong bond of empathy and shock at the news that someone from his world had been tragically robbed of a daughter. John Kercher was well known in tabloid news circles and this is bound to have influenced his fellow hacks when they covered the crime. This may be one reason why the British media has mainly been viciously anti Knox and Sollecito from the start. The almost complete absence of balance and journalistic enquiry has been striking when other overseas murders, such as the Dewani case, have received far more even handed coverage.

The Week was no exception to the rule and has been among the most hostile to the defendants from the start and throughout the twists and turns of the case, it remains so.

Moving on to 2009, Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito were declared guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher for the first time. What did the (then) First Post have to say about the case – more specifically, what did its resident psychoanalyst think?

Coline Covington has no hesitation in jumping in with both feet. She first provides a resume of Knox’s supposed behaviour in Italy, both before and after the murder and quotes Professor David Canter, director of the centre for investigative psychology at Liverpool University, who commented:

“Most bizarre murders, particularly those with a lot of sexual activity and if there are drugs involved, come out of a lifestyle that’s pretty dysfunctional in which there’s some build-up. So it’s unusual for apparently capable and functioning youngsters to get caught up in all this.”

This would appear to be a recommendation to look below the surface of the case and not merely rely on warped media coverage. What kind of people were Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito? They were high achieving, motivated, capable and functioning youngsters.

In the words of John Douglas, the FBI expert who pioneered modern criminal profiling:

“These two individuals – Amanda and Raffaele, for them to commit this horrific crime and leave the crime scene that way – it was a massacre – and then hours later, be back at the crime scene, just doesn’t fit. These were two young people who couldn’t fathom what had taken place. (It was so surreal) they thought they were going to stroll in and out of there and justice would prevail.  But, it didn’t happen that way. Justice did not prevail.”

On the role of the media, Douglas said:

“It absolutely damaged both. The media can shape people’s opinion. A single photograph seen out of context, can affect us. The investigators can also be responsible for leaking information to manipulate the media and thus, public opinion.”

He concluded:

“Two people were convicted that should have never been convicted. The media pictured Amanda as a cold-blooded murderer. Frankly, I was surprised that they were charged. I was surprised by the conviction. The appeal is wrong. It’s wrong because of the lack of concrete evidence. No forensic evidence, no behavioral evidence. Nothing points to their guilt. They’ve got nothing.”

Failing to heed the caution of Professor David Canter, and obviously knowing nothing of John Douglas, Covington ploughs on:

“Knox’s narcissistic pleasure at catching the eye of the media and her apparent nonchalant attitude during most of the proceedings show the signs of a psychopathic personality. Her behaviour is hauntingly reminiscent of Eichmann’s arrogance during his trial for war crimes in Jerusalem in 1961 and most recently of Karadzic’s preening before the International Criminal Court at the Hague.”

She continues:

“The psychopath is someone who has no concern or empathy for others, no awareness of right and wrong, and who takes extreme pleasure in having power over others. The psychopath has no moral conscience and therefore does not experience guilt or remorse.”

So, without having met Amanda Knox and apparently without questioning the media’s coverage of her, Covington confidently paints her as a psychopath. In doing so, she adds another layer of hyperbole to the case. Adolf Eichmann was one of the major organisers of the Holocaust and Covington has no hesitation in placing Amanda Knox right alongside him. This might be a reasonable, albeit surprising assessment of another human being if that person was a patient of the psychoanalyst concerned, although in that case, professional ethics would require that the assessment would remain confidential. To libel a complete stranger, who was only glimpsed through newscasts and tabloid smears, boggles the mind.

Do professional psychoanalysts follow any ethical rules? I turned to the British Psychoanalytic Council Code of Ethics. You will recall that Covington is a former chair of this august body. As you would expect, the code has quite a lot to say about the treatment of patients, but little on the morals of using a professional qualification as a cover to cast aspersions at strangers.

Paragraph 16 states:

“Registrants must conduct themselves in such a manner as not to bring the profession, colleagues or themselves into disrepute and must maintain fitting levels of respect and courtesy with colleagues and members of their own and other professions and with their employer if employed and also with the public.”

Stripping out the unnecessary words for this particular context it reads:

“Registrants must conduct themselves in such a manner as not to bring the profession, or themselves into disrepute and must maintain fitting levels of respect and courtesy with the public.”

That seems to cover it. For me, the act of calling a stranger a psychopath, with all the power of psychological, psychotherapy and sociological qualifications behind that statement and without ever having met the individual concerned, is a step well below professional. Covington is a professional so her opinion is more likely to be taken seriously than the word of a tabloid journalist. A trained physician should follow the fundamental principle of medicine, ‘first, do no harm’.

What do other psychologists or psychoanalysts (apart from Professor David Canter), think about Amanda Knox? A brief trawl across the internet comes up with the following quote from an article in Psychology Today from Dale Archer MD, a clinical psychiatrist:

“My view is that Amanda Knox is not Jodi Arias, is not a sociopath, not even a narcissist. Her roommate was murdered and she was caught in the middle of something terrifying with very real consequences. Unlike Arias, when confronted with the facts, she admitted the lie and then told her story which has been consistent ever since. . .

Knox has friends in her life, not victims or eventual victims. Nowhere have I heard about impulsiveness, constant need for stimulation or crazy, manipulative behavior. Nor have I seen evidence regarding a sense of entitlement, or a history of her demanding unrealistic and special treatment.

Finally if you have followed either case, the persona of each woman is telling. Arias comes across cold, scheming, and untrustworthy, while Knox appears to be a deer in the headlights, stunned and scared about the situation. That’s hard to fake.”

So it is possible to study the case and make sense of it without straying into hysterical libel. Was Covington trying too hard to appease the prejudices of her publisher? We will probably never know.

The investigation into the murder of Meredith Kercher and the subsequent trials of Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito have suffered throughout from the incorrect assessment of body language, facial expression and behaviour, by the police, prosecutors, judges and journalists.  Fortunes have been made by unscrupulous tabloid hacks who warped every action and reaction for the benefit of the prurient reader. This case is not a piece of fiction. Innocent people who were unjustly incarcerated for four years continue to live under the threat of further stretches in prison. Professionals in any occupation owe a duty of care to the truth.

Quotes from John Douglas are from the the Ground Report article: “Unarresting the Arrested: FBI Profiler John Douglas on Amanda Knox and Raffaele Sollecito” – by Krista Errickson

http://groundreport.com/unarresting-the-arrestedfbi-profiler-john-douglas-on-amanda-knox-and-raffaele-sollecito/

Further reading:

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/oct/08/amanda-knox-facial-expressions

http://healthland.time.com/2011/06/30/could-amanda-knox-have-an-autism-spectrum-disorder/

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