What’s the media ever done for us?
More than a century ago, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used the columns of the Daily Telegraph and other publications to campaign for the exoneration of George Edalji wrongly convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse, writes Paul May. Photo by Megan Mallen.
- This article will feature in the follow up collection of essays to Wrongly Accused: Who is responsible for investigating miscarriages of justice?
- Paul May has been involved in numerous campaigns on behalf of the victims of miscarriages from the Birmingham Six, Judith Ward, and the Bridgewater Four through to Sam Hallam , Eddie Gilfoyle and Colin Norris. You can read Paul’s response to the CCRC review [CCRC review response- Paul May].
Conan Doyle had earlier supported Adolph Beck an innocent Norwegian whose conviction for deception was vigorously challenged by the Daily Mail and other newspapers. Media interest in miscarriage of justice cases is, therefore, nothing new. There has been a decline in coverage of wrongful convictions since the 1980s/90s ‘golden age’ when major resources were devoted by media organisations to investigating and reporting alleged wrongful convictions. The slackening of interest has been caused by various factors including the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the inexorable spread of celebrity culture.
For its part, the CCRC professes to be entirely unmoved by publicity about individual cases. On the rare occasions the Court of Appeal deigns even to acknowledge the media’s existence, it usually expresses outright hostility to any intrusion into its affairs by journalists (or anyone else).
Having chaired campaigns on behalf of some 20 innocent prisoners over the past 28 years, I would argue that the current media landscape is not entirely bleak for those seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. Committed journalism can still play a significant role in helping to correct miscarriages of justice.
I recall, moreover, a few decidedly tarnished episodes during the supposed ‘golden age’ of media interest.
Media coverage of miscarriages of justice ranges widely from in-depth investigations such as those formerly conducted by Granada TV’s World in Action into the Birmingham Six case, the BBC’s Rough Justice and Channel 4’s Trial and Error through to brief reports on outlandish campaign stunts (I recollect with a deep blush our delivering a giant Valentine card in a February blizzard to Home Secretary Michael Howard urging referral of the Bridgewater Four case while the Sam Hallam Campaign positioning a full chamber orchestra outside the Ministry of Justice in protest at CCRC budget cuts will doubtless remain the sole occasion anyone has attempted such an unlikely feat).
What does media coverage achieve? In the case of the abovementioned investigative documentaries, the answer is obvious. Fresh evidence unearthed by programme makers made a significant contribution to convictions being quashed. No less than 15 innocent individuals regained their freedom after Rough Justice investigations. Trial and Error boasted an equally impressive track record including the cases of Sheila Bowler and Mary Druhan. Even cursory media attention can have a positive impact. In several cases with which I’ve been involved, new witnesses came forward after seeing media reports. Publicity also reminds the wider public that miscarriages of justice still occur.
Extensive reporting of Sam Hallam’s 2012 release (and the CCRC’s pivotal role in uncovering fresh evidence) provided a powerful argument against those who would cheerfully axe the Commission and return us to the dark days of the Home Office’s C3 Division.
Trial by TV
It is sometimes difficult to convince journalists that evidence about a wrongful conviction might be newsworthy or even sensational from a media perspective but would be worthless if presented before the courts. An example arose in the Birmingham Six case. In 1990, Granada TV decided to name five persons allegedly responsible for the 1974 pub bombings in a drama-documentary Who Bombed Birmingham? Most of the Six, their lawyers and supporters were strongly opposed. In heated discussions before transmission, the broadcasters expressed an unshakeable certainty that their decision would trigger the Six’s release. The day after broadcast, Margaret Thatcher declared in the Commons ‘we do not conduct trial by television’. In answer to Conservative MP Richard Alexander, Home Secretary David Waddington said ‘the programme did not put forward new evidence’ and that was very much that. The ‘Granada Five’ received no mention in either the subsequent referral of the Six’s case nor when the Court of Appeal quashed the convictions. There was, however, a surreal postscript.
A few weeks after broadcast, we received a letter at the Birmingham Six Campaign’s London office from an individual named in the film. He was an inmate at Portlaoise Prison in the Irish Republic and had seen an ITN interview in which I expressed the campaign’s objections. He vehemently denied any involvement in the pub bombings. Would the campaign, he asked, help to clear his name? It was not an invitation we felt we could accept.
Broadcasters often discouraged any other publicity about cases before transmission. While their reasons were understandable, this proved problematic for Danny McNamee (whose campaign I chaired). Channel 4 had commissioned a documentary about his case but broadcast was delayed for several years. We asked an Irish newspaper to run an article about Danny’s case. Our campaign secretary (who had directed the film) received a letter from Channel 4 suggesting we were in breach of copyright in publicising details of the case. I sent an equally robust reply pointing out that the material in the film had been provided by Danny’s family, solicitor and supporters. If anyone owned copyright in his story, it was Danny McNamee himself. In the end, the film was only broadcast after the newly-established CCRC referred his case to the Court of Appeal (which rather missed the point of commissioning the documentary).
What of now? Following Sam Hallam’s release (see pic above) , an eminent commentator claimed Sam’s campaign was ‘unassisted by any mainstream press and television backing’. This was incorrect. During Sam’s 7½ years wrongful imprisonment, ITV1 broadcast in prime time a Tonight film about the case. The Independent ran several articles on one occasion devoting three whole pages of the paper to Sam. The Mail on Sunday published a lengthy sympathetic piece. Articles in Private Eye were instrumental in attracting support for the campaign (although the Eye would probably deny it has anything to do with the ‘mainstream press’). Some idea of changed media realities may be gathered from our discussions about the Tonight programme. ITV made clear that unless the actor Ray Winstone (whose nephew is a close friend of Sam) took part, it was unlikely the film would be made. In this celebrity-obsessed age, we were perhaps fortunate they didn’t also insist on Ant and Dec appearing as co-presenters. Although broadcast in the same time-slot (and despite ITV’s Press Office working wonders to secure pre-publicity in the tabloids), the Tonight film struggled to attract even one tenth of the audience regularly enjoyed by World in Action and other documentary strands in their heyday. The perception that Sam’s case received no coverage prior to his release probably says more about our changed relationship with television and the press than about the media per se. Put simply, the contemporary plethora of news outlets means we’re all less affected by (or can even remember) individual stories.
On a positive note, the popular press is nowadays much less hostile to wrongly convicted prisoners. Coverage of Sam Hallam’s release included an editorial in the Sun strongly condemning the miscarriage of justice under the headline ‘Sam Scandal’. This contrasted with the same newspaper’s ‘Loony MP Backs Bomb Gang’ headline when the Birmingham Six 1987 appeal was rejected and grudging speculation after the men’s 1991 release about the amount of compensation they might receive. I currently chair a support group for Eddie Gilfoyle whose wrongful murder conviction cries out to be overturned. Over several years, the Times Investigations Editor Dominic Kennedy has uncovered significant fresh evidence pointing to Eddie’s innocence while editorials have called for his case to be resolved. I’m also closely involved with the case of former nurse Colin Norris dubbed the ‘Angel of Death’ after conviction for the purported murder and attempted murder of five elderly patients in two Leeds hospitals. A compelling film casting serious doubt on the evidence used to convict him made by former Rough Justice producer Louise Shorter was broadcast by BBC Scotland in 2011 (although inexplicably the documentary has yet to receive an airing in England and Wales).
The glare of publicity
Does media interest make any difference in light of the CCRC’s existence? The Commission receives more than 1,000 applications annually from convicted persons claiming innocence. It would be unrealistic to expect every case could be investigated comprehensively with all potential avenues thoroughly explored. The Commission admits it usually requires some substantial reason before it launches detailed investigations. In Sam Hallam’s case, statements from witnesses identified by ITV’s Tonight formed part of the initial submission which persuaded the CCRC to conduct a major investigation. Evidence gathered in making A Jury in the Dark features prominently in Colin Norris’s CCRC application which has led to the Commission mounting a detailed inquiry. Coverage of individual cases also helps inspire public confidence in the continuing need for a body such as the CCRC. There are grounds to believe the Court of Appeal is more inclined to approach cases rationally when it feels the glare of publicity.
In the past, the solipsism of some journalists caused them to claim their endeavours alone led to the more notorious miscarriages of justice being overturned. In reality, these cases were resolved thanks to the combined efforts of dedicated lawyers, politicians, campaigners and the media not to mention the prisoners themselves and their families. In the early 20th century, public concern about the Beck and Edalji cases was a major factor in the decision to establish a Court of Criminal Appeal (albeit populated by the same judges who had implacably opposed its creation). The cases of the Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and others led to the CCRC’s foundation. Who knows? Renewed public awareness via media coverage might even convince the police, prosecutors and courts to do everything they can to avoid wrongful convictions happening in the first place.