Home > Uncategorized > This is not America

This is not America

I began my working life on a newspaper, but before that I studied law for a while. Not much of it stuck, but the basics did. For example, the presumption of innocence, and the right of every accused to a trial before a fair-minded jury, unfettered by any knowledge of the detail of the case. That knowledge informed my time as a journalist. In those days we were careful about what was said about anyone arrested, and once a charge was laid, that was it.

Has something changed when I wasn’t looking? Has the American practice of aggressive, prejudicial investigation been introduced to Britain?  I ask this because what’s been reported in the wake of the arrest in the Yates murder enquiry is beginning to resemble trial by media. I haven’t done a trawl of the English press. So far I’ve only  looked at the Torygraph, but I have no doubt that it’s typical, and I don’t like what I see. Its story suggests that the arrested man was the last person to see Ms Yeates alive, and adds that he is the only suspect in the case. It leads with the allegation that he helped the victim’s partner ‘fix his car, so he could drive to Sheffield’. But read on, and you’ll find that what unnamed neighbours say is merely that he came up with a set of jump leads, and  that he wasn’t alone in the helping. If I was a juror I wouldn’t see that as tantamount to ‘fixing’ and  I wouldn’t take it to imply exclusive  knowledge that the bloke was going away for the weekend and that the victim would be alone in her flat. The report also quotes pupils at the school where he taught as saying that he is a fan of dark and violent avant garde films. Wait a minute! He retired in 2001; he could have moved on to Pixar animation by now. But even if he hasn’t, if that unsubstantiated  foible from ten years back counts as evidence, hey, lock me up too, for I watched ElectraGlide in Blue last night. To be fair to the Torygraph, it does offer ‘defence’ evidence also, by citing a neighbour who points out that the arrested man is slightly built, and who suggests that he would not have been strong enough to do what has been suggested.

They’ll sell some newspapers on the back of it, no question. That’s what they’re there to do, and I’m not going to blame them for it. No, what I find disturbing is the way in which information has flowed to the media, and its source. The feeding frenzy was started by the police, when they made their arrest and then removed, very publicly, two cars, and a large quantity of material from the man’s home. They don’t appear to have said very much on the record, but the ‘lone suspect’ titbit could only have come from one place, and on what we used to call a ‘non-attributable basis’ in my media days. What’s happened? The cops are under pressure for an early result, a suspect has fallen into their laps, and they’re steering the media towards him. Simples.

All of which takes me back to the presumption of innocence. I can’t recall a British case in which it has been more conspicuously absent. I find myself hoping that the police do charge this man, almost for his sake. If they don’t, if the forensic evidence proves his innocence, not his guilt, and he’s released? I’ll bet Max Clifford has his mobile number already.

Today’s issue of the Torygraph also quotes our foreign secretary as expressing concern over the handling of the Khodorovsky case in Russia. Maybe he should ensure that his own house is clean before criticising others.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. bagpuss72
    December 31, 2010 at 2:49 pm

    I thought I was alone in thinking like this!
    There seems to be far too much “information” (and I use those inverted commas purposefully) leaking from the police these days. They do need to realise that they are not judge and jury, alongside the role we expect them to do. They may arrest and charge and question but it is not up to them to decide, or, even in my mind, imply that the person they have in custody is “the right man”.

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