Don’t blame the web – We have always been intrigued by murder

by Fighting for Justice

Rampant conjecture and repeated innuendo are not simply the product of a social-networking, twittering generation

Kate Colquhoun

The Observer. Sunday 9 Jan 2011

Footage of the last-known movements of the landscape architect Joanna Yeates, captured on CCTV, has haunted Britain over the last fortnight. Like the shooting of Jill Dando in 1999 and the Soham murders in 2002, this violent crime has provoked endless speculation in the media, including the hounding of retired English teacher Christopher Jefferies. The attorney general has warned us against speculation about possible evidence against Jefferies. Yet, despite the Contempt of Court Act, it seems unlikely that immoderate reporting will cease any time soon.

There have been suggestions that the internet is encouraging the tabloids, hampering the police and increasingly prejudicing trials, but has it really changed things? When John Thurtell was said to have slit the throat of William Weare and dumped his body in a pond in Elstree in the early 1820s, the press discovered that printing details of brutality and its investigation could boost circulation. Throughout the 19th century, as the newspaper industry boomed, the prurient details of murder investigations (along with plenty of scurrilous, pre-trial speculation) was devoured by the reading public. So extensive was the speculation habitually printed alongside the details of ongoing inquiries that the Home Office referred prosecution barristers to the newspapers for the details of their brief.
Sent to England by the French government specifically to inquire into the system and conduct of juries, Charles Cottu reported in the 1820s that the English were practically “indifferent whether among the really guilty such be convicted…” Cottu believed that the English public wanted resolution above all; that they sought swift convictions in order to cauterise their fear of violent crime.

And so, although the rule of innocent until proved guilty was enshrined in English law, the press has traditionally paid little heed to prohibitions against stirring up prejudice against suspects or prisoners awaiting trial. The greatest public anxiety – and therefore the most reporting – has always arisen when the victim was “respectable”, middle class: an Everyman. The killing of the stalwart old banker Thomas Briggs in his first-class railway carriage as he travelled home to his suburban villa in Hackney was thus dubbed by the press of 1864 “this terrible drama of real life”. It was the first murder on a British train and, as lurid details – some true, others not – leaked into the press, shock quickly became widespread nervousness and fear. Only the Telegraph sought to remind its readers that the foreigner arrested by the police might prove to be innocent.

London was again whipped into panic by reports of the ghastly details of the Whitechapel – or “Jack the Ripper” – murders. Decades later, in July 1910, when the decomposed remains of Belle Elmore were found in the coal cellar of a London suburban house, the papers reported immediately: “Husband is missing. Also girl typist.” Hawley Crippen, readers were told, had “for some time carried on a somewhat mysterious agency business”. The case was presented by the papers as gripping and, by the time he was apprehended mid-Atlantic, there were few who remained unconvinced of Crippen’s guilt.

In 1955, the case against the nightclub hostess Ruth Ellis, suspected of shooting her lover, David Blakely, outside a tavern in Hampstead, was also presented by the press as an “open-and-shut case”. The jury took only 20 minutes to convict, but was this a crime of passion or, as some have since claimed, a miscarriage of justice provoked by intemperate reporting?

Sensationalism, rampant conjecture and repeated innuendo are not simply the inevitable product of a social-networking, twittering generation. Nor is our rampant appetite for the detail of vicious crime particularly modern. The murder of “ordinary” people pricks endlessly at the horrible fear that one’s own existence could also be plunged into hell. Thus, perhaps, our fanatical scrutiny of the details of murder: we are interested because the victim could have been one of us; simultaneously, we reassure ourselves that this tragedy has happened to someone else.

Brought up on detective novels and their screen versions, we turn armchair detectives, picking over the “evidence”, titillated by prosaic clues such as pizza boxes and the implied menace of a missing sock. We hope for infallibility in our detectives, demanding that they will solve the puzzle swiftly in order to keep us safe. Educated in forensic techniques by TV series, we insist that science be harnessed to the cause of certainty: witness the obsessive reporting of advanced scientific tests being used on Yeates’s flat.

Unlike the newspapers of the past, the internet enables today’s news to be available worldwide in seconds. And in the electronic universe, nothing gets filed in the bin. Everything lives on. “Facts” may be proved wrong, suspicion may turn out to have been misplaced, but the mud sticks, forever.

Barristers will ask members of the jury to put from their minds anything they may have read or heard about the case before a trial begins. Trial judges are legally constrained to advise juries with rigorous impartiality. The great majority of the people I know who have been called to jury service have reported how sensible, cautious and un-prejudgmental they believed the deliberations of their group to have been. Except in very specific circumstances, information about prior convictions is currently withheld from the jury at trial. And here, perhaps, is one of the greatest challenges for the internet age. Jurors report that when prior convictions are disclosed before sentencing, they believe their guilty verdicts to have been vindicated. We may have to live with innuendo, speculation and mis-reporting, whether we like it or not; when it comes to the internet, the real danger to the commission of justice lies, ironically, in the facts it makes available. If, at the click of a mouse, we are able to uncover not just gossip but criminal records, then impartiality becomes almost impossible. Anyone “odd” or “different’ who has also been convicted stands almost no chance of a fair trial.

In England, law lords have already called for some material to be removed from the net ahead of trials. Whether this is possible in practice remains to be seen. In the meantime, it is the freedom of information that we increasingly demand which will come at a judicial price more severe than our Victorian or even 20th-century forebears could possibly have imagined

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