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ANALYSIS: In the very same week that the BBC announced it was to axe Rough Justice, three Appeal Court judges quashed the murder conviction of a young man, whose wrongful conviction had been exposed by the programme, writes Louise Shorter.
Barri White was in no doubt about the part Rough Justice had played in securing his freedom when he told reporters on his release ‘without Rough Justice I would not be here today’. Today he is a happily married man and a father. Unusually for miscarriage cases, the local police force re-opened their files and recently charged a new man in relation to the murder. He will stand trial later this year.
The BBC’s 2007 decision to quietly ditch its 27-year household-name strand, genuine public sector broadcasting, was in part financial: factual output at the Corporation was being slashed, a period which The Guardian described as ‘swingeing budget cuts’. But chief exec Michael Jackson’s description of his Channel 4 show Trial & Error as ‘a bit 1980s’ revealed far more about the reasons media execs fell out of love with miscarriage of justice stories, in a climate of reality razzmatazz and celebrity schmoozing.
‘C4 chief exec Michael Jackson’s description of Trial & Error as ‘a bit 1980s’ revealed far more about the reasons media execs fell out of love with miscarriage of justice stories, in a climate of reality razzmatazz and celebrity schmoozing.’
New twist, old theme
A little over one hundred years after England had its collective appetite whetted with the original whodunit, the Road Hill House murder case (recently documented in the hugely successful book and TV adaptation The Suspicions of Mr Whicher), the media latched onto a new twist on an old theme: miscarriages of justice. In 1860 the death of the middle-class child in a house locked from the inside caught the imagination of the public turning them into amateur detectives wanting to solve the horrific mystery of who had cut the throat of the toddler before forcing him headfirst into the cesspit below the outside privy. In 1961 murder once again grasped the imagination of a public hungry for details of an illicit couple, forced at gunpoint from a cornfield in Buckinghamshire to drive through the night. First Michael Gregsten was fatally shot, then his mistress Valerie Storie was raped and shot, though she survived. A BBC Panorama programme in 1966 examined the case in detail and questioned whether James Hanratty, hanged four years earlier for the crimes, had been guilty at all. It is a question which endures (nearly) 50 years on.
It was in the 1980s that miscarriage of justice cases became staple teatime fodder for the Great British public. Peter Hill, inspired by the work of Ludovic Kennedy and Tom Sargent at the human rights group JUSTICE, devised the BBC programme Rough Justice. In 1992 he told The Guardian: ‘At that time there were equally important programmes being made by John Willis at Yorkshire Television and Ray Fitzwater at Granada. We were all investigating mistakes made before a case came to trial. That was the problem in the early eighties – the legacy of police misconduct from the seventies.’ In 1985 World in Action, a strand seen worldwide, which in its heyday drew audiences of 23 million in Britain alone, highlighted the case of the Birmingham 6, which of course ultimately ended in 1991 with those iconic shots of the six triumphant men, arms aloft, their names finally cleared.
I joined the BBC production team at Rough Justice in 1998 at a time when the programme still had a dedicated team of half a dozen or so members at any one time, working on a range of cases. Usually two programmes were made every year, one less than in the heydays of the 80s but similar in terms of the level of detailed investigative work done and comparable in results for the prisoners. When I joined, the team was made up of a couple of former barristers working as interns looking for a route away from the bar teamed with journalists and researchers.
It is hard to underestimate how difficult the job of raking over a murder case is once the conviction is in. The training opportunities programmes like Rough Justice and Trial and Error provided were hugely important in keeping the spectre of shoddy police work and dubious expert evidence under the public spotlight and of course, in helping innocent prisoners and their families desperate for help.
In the 10 years I worked on the programme I was constantly amazed by the level of support and assistance given by solicitors and barristers working pro bono for a cause, and an individual, they believed in.
From 2003 Rough Justice saw its operation scaled back, but it still continued to make critically acclaimed programmes about injustices. The nature of television commissioning meant that Rough Justice, with its brief to deliver one or two programmes every year, allowed in-house, immediate commissioning of programmes which were difficult, controversial and risky.
In 2003 I made a programme which came out of the Rough Justice stable called ‘Life after Life’. It was about John Kamara, a man who’d spent 20 years in prison for a crime he did not commit, whose case had first been highlighted by Channel 4’s Trial and Error. The programme showed the injustice done to wrongly convicted people who won their appeals and had their convictions quashed. These men were set free at the Court of Appeal without the safety net of parole, probation and a supported return to freedom in place for guilty people.
John Kamara was released with the clothes he stood up in, two sacks of legal papers he’d carried with him throughout his time in jail, and a £46 travel warrant. He had no home, had lost contact with virtually all of his family and, without a National Insurance number, had no identity. It wasn’t long before he wished he was back inside.
One reviewer said of the programme: ‘In 50 minutes, BBC1 last night redeemed itself for almost all of its recent lapses with Life after Life – a compelling and important documentary in the very best traditions of campaigning television.’ The programme would not have been made without Rough Justice. In 2006 a miscarriage of justice advisory service was launched at the Appeal Court to help people like John Kamara.
In 2004 a Rough Justice programme showed CCTV footage of a former soldier called Christopher Alder who died whilst lying handcuffed as police officers looked on, wondering whether he was faking it. After more than ten minutes on the station floor, he choked to death on his own blood and vomit. Following transmission of the programme, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett ordered the IPCC to conduct a full review, which resulted in a scathing report declaring four police officers guilty of the ‘most serious neglect of duty’.
Rough Justice is still a rare beast of a programme which the public remembers instantly despite it being off-air for five years. Today I run a not-for-profit organisation called Inside Justice which is funded through charitable donations to investigate alleged miscarriages of justice. Any mention of my training ground on Rough Justice to lawyers or experts, witnesses or police, results in immediate recognition of the series and universal respect, tinged with a healthy element of trepidation from some quarters. Television controllers, keen on instant gratification for commissions within their tenure may have fallen out of love with the genre but it’s not a view reflected by audiences.
‘Life after Life’ had the highest audience figure for its timeslot for the entire year. Sean Hodgson’s release in 2009 after spending 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit, received wall-to-wall media coverage and the man was so hounded by the press his location on release was kept secret. A ‘Google’ search about the case gets more than half a million hits worldwide.
The problem we all face in bringing these stories into the public arena is one of risk and investment compared to today’s standards of quick turnaround telly fixated with celebrity. Simon Ford who ran the Rough Justice unit says ‘the tragedy of losing Rough Justice is not just that television audiences are not being regularly informed of miscarriages. It is that a dedicated unit, tasked explicitly to do new journalism and fresh investigation has been disbanded. Newspapers will no longer afford dedicated investigative teams and it seems neither will public service broadcasters.’ Inside Justice was set up with charitable funding, primarily from the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, to do the legwork required to come up with new evidence in order to get innocent prisoners out of jail, and their stories into the public domain.
The case of former nurse Colin Norris, convicted of murdering elderly patients in his care with insulin injections, was investigated by Inside Justice. Once convinced of his innocence we took the case to the BBC and then, in collaboration with them made a 30 minute TV documentary about his plight. His application for a referral to the Appeal Court is now being considered by the Criminal Cases Review Commission. We are not an alternative to a firm of solicitors, we work closely with existing legal representatives or can find a good solicitor if one is not already in place, but our expert Advisory Panel and extensive contacts can bring the opportunities for new forensic work to be done, which the prisoner could neither afford personally, nor qualify for legal aid to pursue. We re-examine case papers and trawl over unused material: vital work which won’t, in today’s climate, be covered by legal aid. We can knock on doors and track down witnesses, and shine that all-important spotlight on an increasingly ignored area of the criminal justice system. We try to work closely with Innocence Projects and are forging links with universities and laboratories, hoping that our combined efforts will bring justice for individuals who have been forgotten and are lost in the system.
It is important that these stories be heard, in order to inspire future generations of lawyers, experts and investigative journalists to work in this difficult field, so they in turn can help future generations of innocent people, who will undoubtedly be wrongfully convicted. Miscarriages of justice weren’t invented in the 1970s and 80s, television just discovered the notion then and started digging. They didn’t go away either at the turn of this century, and nor did the public’s interest.
Louise Shorter is a freelance television producer, director and writer with 15 years’ experience of criminal justice issues. She was a producer on the BBC’s Rough Justice programme for 10 years. In 2010 she set up Inside Justice, a not-for-profit miscarriage of justice investigative unit funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, the Michael Newsum Charitable Trust and Inside Time, the national newspaper for prisoners.