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Monday, July 19, 2010

Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

Lest I be accused of being a little holier than thou in my attitude to The Sun in the post below, let me assure you I know just how easily a photograph can ruin your day as a journalist.

Let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in.

This is back in the days when I was a jobbing hack on the Daily Post and it was my turn to 'do the calls.'

This was the round of phone calls made several times a day to the emergency services to see if there were any crimes, deaths, disasters or other human misery happening for us to report on. It was also in the days when such calls were made to human beings - usually a duty inspector in the police control room, or a desk sergeant at individual police stations. Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded 'voicebanks', which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.

Anyway, I digress, back to the sex and death. You see the virtue of talking to a human is that they do love a bit of gossip and so it was that morning when I made the call and was informed of a sudden death in a nearby market town, woman in custody as a result. Slowly, but surely, the story emerged.

It would seem the local brass band was a hotbed of illicit passion. She was 30, he was in his 60s, and after band practice they would adjourn to the local marshes in his roomy estate car where they would consummate their affair. Both were married.

The police were holding her as they believed she'd hit him in a lovers' tiff, causing a fatal heart attack. She said he had died during or shortly after they had made love. She had shagged him to death.

So, I set out hotfoot to the market town with a photographer, and crucially got to the bandmaster before word had spread of just how this bandsman had died. The family were letting people know of his death, but were, understandably, not sharing the grisly detail.

Most important, we got a photo of the band. Dead man, back row centre, and the bandmaster never queried it, but we got him to name every single band member, and there she was, in the front row - the, quite literally, femme fatale.

So, were were very happy with ourselves, we had the story, the picture, the whole shebang and off to Liverpool it all went to be printed the next day in the Daily Post.

The next day, when I opened the paper, it was one of those moments as a reporter and you will all have them, when you close the paper, wanting what you see not to be true.

Because, on the front row far right there was a bloke in a wheelchair, and there was no-one sitting or standing behind him, what a designer would call 'dead space' a blank wall. So the man in the wheelchair was cropped off to neaten the pic. However, when the caption, which has already been written, reads: "Mrs X, fourth from the right," the crop means that the identification moves along to the right. So instead of accusing the femme fatale of shagging to death a fellow bandsman, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun messing up the picture in the story about Maj Gallimore. It is easily done.

But if you do do it, then get it sorted quickly, which is precisely what the Daily Post did.

Firstly, we didn't wait for a complaint. Eric Langton, who was on the DP newsdesk - one of the best news editors I've ever worked with, a real newsman, totally unflappable and a pleasure to work for - went straight round to the girl's family with a letter of apology from the paper.

Her dad, you will understand, was not a happy man. Let's face it, his daughter is 16 - she's not on drugs, she's not pregnant, not a tattooed death metal fan. She plays in a brass band for heaven's sake, she is every dad's vision of perfection, and here you have the Daily Post suggesting she kills elderly bandsmen with sex.

But, in typically civilised British fashion, he was polite with Eric and said that what action they took depended on how she reacted, she was at school and hadn't seen the paper yet.

She arrived home, took one look at the Post.....and burst out laughing. She didn't think anyone in the town would really think it was her, and didn't think it would be taken seriously. So, they didn't sue us. Nor did they want a correction, which they felt would just draw more attention to the story.

A close call, but a lesson that being straight with people and admitting your error, no matter how stupid it may make you look, can get you off the hook.

Oh, and the femme fatale? She was acquitted at trial.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Texting jurors and the Contempt of Court Act

So, you're on your final hours of jury duty. You've heard the closing arguments, the judge has summed up and now along with your fellow jurors you're seated in the jury room beginning your deliberations.

Then the judge pops his head round the door and points to a box in the middle of the table.

"Erm, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, in that box there's lots of information about this case which I've ruled inadmissible, or it's been kept out because of legal restrictions. Just don't look in it ok? Thanks a lot."

You look at one another, one of you whispers that surely a peek wouldn't hurt, another says you might get into trouble with the judge if you look. The judge's head appears round the door again and he says: "Oh, if you do look and keep schtum about it, there's nothing we can do, we can't even ask you if you looked after you've reached a verdict."

This about sums up the attitude of the courts to the internet and jurors. They are warned not to look, not to conduct their own Google-investigations. But unless a juror is reported for bringing in material by another juror, there's no way the courts can 'detect' such practices. Indeed the Contempt of Court Act 1981 forbids anyone, even a Royal Commission on Justice, from even asking jurors how they reached their verdicts - eg, did you reach it as a result of evidence, or did Wikipedia give you a helping hand?

This week we have seen the latest use by a juror of technology. A teenage juror texted another on the same trial to give a running commentary on evidence, as reported here in The Guardian's new Law section.

The recipient of the text reported the matter, both were discharged, and the texter was given a suspended sentence, showing how seriously the courts take these matters.

This is something I've been pointing out for some time now. While the print media in particular, broadcasters too though they generally do less court reporting, are all under dire warnings of the dangers of contempt, very little is known of what jurors do when they sit at home in the warm glow of their laptop.

An indication of just what is available was shown in the 2004 trial of David Bieber, who stood trial and was later convicted of the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst, and the attempted murder of two other officers.

I was teaching in Newcastle, where the trial took place, and seeing the police presence outside the court, Googled 'David Bieber.'

Now, before the results, I should mention that the reporters in court were told not to mention anything about Bieber's background, previous offences. His photgraph was banned too as 'identity was at issues' - ie he was claiming he didn't shoot the officers, a mysterious Mr X had done so - I know, this goes some way to explaining his conviction.

Top of the Google results was a site called America's Most Wanted which helpfully informed a viewer that Bieber, aka Nathan Wayne Coleman, was on the run for a suspected murder in Florida. It also carried his police mugshot.

If I were a trial judge I would be far more concerned about the Googling or texting juror than the court reporter sitting on the Press bench.

There's an interesting paper by Prof Michael Bromby of Glasgow Caledonian University.

The last government announced that it would conduct research into juries and how they reached their verdicts. It is to be hoped the present government continues this research. It might come to the conclusion that the Contempt of Court Act, enacted almost 30 years ago - long before the internet, Twitter, Facebook and blogs - is long overdue some revision.