Like most countries, England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Scotland has its own legal system) try to ensure that those who come before its courts get a fair trial. And one way they do so is to enforce an aspect of the ‘contempt of court’legislation: once someone has been charged with a crime, the media can only report that fact and his or her name and address. This rule was once very strictly observed. and anyone straying beyond those bounds was severely bollocked and could even be jailed for contempt of court.
In the U.S., and for all I know other countries, they have a different tradition and even before a trial has started, the public can be assailed from all sides with lurid accounts of why the accused did it, how he did it, when he did it and what sentence he can expect when, as the media fully expect, he is found bang to rights. Furthermore, those same media feel no shame whatsoever when their lurid prognostications are found by a jury to be just so much bollocks. But as I don’t know too much about the legal system in the U.S. and other countries, I shall leave it at that.
I was a reporter for six years and attended a great deal of magistrate and Crown Court hearings, and the one rule we had to observe was that, in the phrase which we all know, the accused, who was only ever ‘the accused’, was ‘innocent until proven guilty’. So we had to be very careful what we wrote. One way of keeping to the straight and narrow was to stick that very useful word ‘alleged’ in front of everything.
That all changed, or rather I personally noticed that that had all changed, when The Yorkshire Ripper was caught. Peter Sutcliffe had murdered more than ten prostitutes in a number of years, and had slipped through the police’s hands more than once after being questioned. When he was finally arrested, the police said – whether informally or not – that ‘they were not looking for anyone else in connection with the murders’.
The message was broadcast loud and clear well before any possible jury would be allowed to consider the evidence: Sutcliffe did it. The irony is that had Sutcliffe chosen to plead not guilty at his subsequent trial, his lawyers might well have been able to claim the publicity ensured he would not get a free trial. In the event, he pleaded guilty. (One conspiracy theory claims the deal he cut with the police was that – as he was going down for life, anyway – he would be ensured to be sent to the far cushier Broadmoor, our hospital for the criminally insane, rather than a common or garden prison if he admitted to murdering several prostitutes he hadn’t actually done in. This, so the conspiracists claim, because the cops wanted to clear a couple of other murders from their books they knew Sutcliffe had not committed. The theory goes on the claim that there was not one but two ‘Rippers’, the second simply copying what Sutcliffe started.)
I was reminded of this by The Sun’s coverage in these past few days of a woman called Jo Yeates, who disappeared a few days before Christmas and whose body was found just over a week later. Jo and her boyfriend rented a flat from a retired English teacher who, it seems, was something of an eccentric. And within a day of telling police that he recalled hearing three people leaving her flat on the day she disappeared, Chris Jefferies, who is 65 and unmarried, was arrested ‘on suspicion of murder’. Crucially, he was only arrested for questioning. He was not charged. The Press, of course went to town: on December 31, The Sun had him bang to rights, not actually claiming he was Jo’s killer, but hinting broadly in that former pupils described him as ‘weird, posh, lewd and creepy’. It didn’t help matters that he ‘blue-rinsed’ his hair. (To be fair, other papers also pushed out the boat. The fact that I am only giving examples form The Sun doesn’t mean all the other papers behaved impeccably in this matter. It was also a stroke of luck that Jefferies had taught English at the nearby public school Clifton Colleger. Red top readers always like a ‘posh’ angle.)
A day later, The Sun produced further proof fingering Jefferies (pictured). It seemed he had ‘followed a woman’
who was a former acquaintance of the murder victim. Well! (was the implication), he’s your man! What sort of murdering weirdo does that! Except that perhaps he isn’t. He might be of course, but the police have now released him and warned that whoever killed Jo is ‘still on the streets’. That could, of course, also included Jefferies, but The Sun was careful not to make that connection. Jefferies, it admitted, had been released without charge, and it went on to quote a police chief superintendent: ‘Jo's killer is still out there somewhere. We will find them and bring them to justice. At the moment we don't know who killed her but we are determined to find out.’ Determined, eh? That’s good news, but it if very unfair to be snide about the cops who are doing their best and don’t give up. It would be far fairer to be snide about The Sun and The Mirror and all the other papers, the ‘serious’ papers included, who are only too prepared to hang, draw and quarter a man because he is odd, unmarried and blue-rinses his hair.
Naturally, I have no idea who killed Jo. It is as likely to be Jefferies as anyone else, and we could see him re-arrested and charged with Jo’s murder. And we could equally see someone entirely different arrested and charged. My point is this: why are the Press being allowed to drive a coach and four through established contempt of court legislation? In a way, the courts only have themselves to blame, in that they didn’t crack down on it sooner. Give them a yard and they will take a mile. I am not at all in favour of any legislation to curtail the Press (as many MPs who have been caught with their pants down or their fingers in the till are), but equally important as Press freedom – in which we take the rough with the smooth – is that our media should not act as judge, jury and hangman when it suits them, for which read when it is likely to boost sales of their rags.
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I, for one, always admire courage, even of the foolhardy kind. There’s something noble about the knight who shoulders his lance, waves farewell to his damsel, then urges on his steed to gallop ever faster into certain death. So, I think we should raise a glass to plucky Estonia which on New Year’s Day ditched its old currency, the kroon, and embraced the future which is the euro. Not for them the safer waters of ‘well, given what’s been going on, wouldn’t it be wiser to slow down and see what happens?’ Apparently not.
I am obliged to be a little fairer, however, and concede that not all of Estonia is happy with the move. Just, it seems, the politicians. Those opposed to ditching the kroon in favour of the euro plastering Tallin with posters proclaiming: ‘Estonia. Welcome to the Titanic. Whether or not the hoi polloi are happy with the move depends on whose survey you read. The Estonian government reckons around half of the population support adopting the euro, while a survey commissioned by opponents claims only 34.3pc favoured the move, while 52.8pc opposed it.
This morning, the news from Estonia was gloomy. Estonians are finding it hard to come to grips with the new currency. Oh, well. You can't say they weren't warned.
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The big news of the week – well, for some perhaps, although not me – is that Agnetha Whatever (the blonde one) would ‘not say no’ to an Abba reunion. To which the only sane response is: don’t do it. If there is one thing I have learnt, it is that one of the few principles worth a candle is: Never Go Back. Don’t go back to girl or boyfriends, don’t go back to an old company, don’t go back to live where you were once glad to get away and, particularly relevant for bands, don’t reform. Certainly, there will be more than enough old fans who will make it worth your while financially, but unless you are on your uppers and the taxman is breathing down your neck, stick to the principle and Don’t Do It. Ever. There is no sadder sight than some bunch of old farts, both men and women, bald, jowly, fat, paunchy, reliving their past glories and making a complete hash of it. Yes, they might be persuaded that ‘the return’ was a triumph, but that is usually by the promoter who makes a tidy bob or two and the manager who has had enough and wants to build up a nest egg.
There is a line in The Who’s song My Generation which runs: ‘Hope I die before I get old’. Well, two of them did – Keith Moon and John Entwhistle, but Daltrey and Townshend are now respected elder statesman and there is no sadder sight. Well, there is: the bloody Rolling Stones, still inexplicably billing themselves as the greatest rock band in the world, parading as though they can still cut it.