Magazine article The Spectator

It May Seen Difficult to Believe, but the Media Have Shown Some Restraint in Their Coverage of Soham

Magazine article The Spectator

It May Seen Difficult to Believe, but the Media Have Shown Some Restraint in Their Coverage of Soham

Article excerpt

The very name of Soham induces a strange mixture of disgust, boredom and pity. I return to it with reluctance. But we have to consider the conduct of the media, and in particular the criticisms made about the press by the Cambridgeshire coroner, David Morris, and by the Cambridgeshire police.

I'm certainly not going to defend the worst excesses of the media. The rewards offered by some newspapers are said to have encouraged hundreds of gold-digging callers to clog up police telephone lines. Some papers printed details I would very much rather not have read. The News of the World's renewed call for `Sarah's Law', which would give parents the right to know the identity of sex offenders living in their area, seems to be a case of jumping on the wrong bandwagon at the wrong time. Then there was the nauseous sentimentality of some of the reporting, which must have encouraged the morbid day-trippers who have appalled the inhabitants of Soham.

But, with the exception of the rewards, these were in essence errors of taste on the part of the media - and errors which we can be perfectly sure will be repeated next time. The really serious accusation against the media is that they have prejudiced a fair trial by providing lurid accounts of the private lives of the defendants, Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr, during the four days between their arrest and the bringing of charges against them by the police. According to some reports, the police fear that some articles breached the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which is intended to ensure that potential jurors are not influenced by prejudicial information that might alter the course of justice. One senior police officer is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying, `Much of the coverage has clearly been in breach of the Contempt of Court. We took great pains to let the press know that we were concerned by the coverage.'

Mmmm. If the media did publish details about Huntley's and Carr's private lives which might prejudice a fair trial, one has to ask where they got them from. The answer, in many cases, is the police. After the two were arrested, the police continued to share an enormous amount of information with the press. But it is certainly not the case that all the details passed on were printed or broadcast. In some instances the media respected the requests of the police not to publish certain matters. For example, information about the state of the two girls' bodies was withheld for obvious reasons, and became public only at the inquest last week.

I have to be careful here, for I do not wish myself to be accused of prejudice. Suffice to say that the police themselves shared a piece of information with the media about Huntley which most of the media chose not to publish. Ironically, a newspaper in Grimsby appears to have alerted the police in the first instance. So far as I can see, all the English papers have behaved entirely properly. The Scottish papers, by contrast, behaved as though Scotland were a foreign country and observed no such restraint. Since these papers circulate in England, and might arguably (though I personally highly doubt it) influence a prospective juror, the authorities might have a legitimate interest in the matter. But it would be wrong to blame the tabloids because one of the newspapers which may have erred was the Scotsman. The London-based tabloids, I repeat, behaved properly.

Forgive me if all this seems a bit occluded. …

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