Innocent till proved guilty?

21 December 2006 – Some newspapers have been sailing pretty close to the wind in their coverage of the Suffolk murders.

Until charges are laid, of course, it is legitimate to publish information about a crime, but we are already hearing concerns that reporting in this case has echoes of the frenzy surrounding the Fred and Rose West case more than ten years ago. At the time we had to warn the Press Complaints Commission that potential witnesses were being offered money for their stories in advance of giving evidence on oath. Its then Chair Lord Wakeham issued a warning to editors to cease and desist for fear of prejudicing the trial. Later it was revealed that 19 witnesses had been offered newspaper cash.

Stung by criticism about its ineffectiveness, on 19 Dec the PCC issued a warning to editors about offering inducements to possible witnesses.

Next day we had a Sun ‘Picture exclusive’ of suspect number two Steve Wright with his hands around his wife’s neck at a party almost ten years ago, under the headline ‘Is THIS the strangler?’ Inside readers were asked ‘Do you know this man?’ along side a request to ring in or email ‘exclusive@the-sun’. A cheap and cheeky approach to journalism that begs you to ‘watch this space’.

Elsewhere The Sun asks ‘Is this a Muslim woman or a ruthless gunman?’ over a picture of someone wearing niqab. Other papers take a similar angle over the disappearance of Mustaf Jama who failed to stand trial for the murder of WPC Beshenivsky.

‘It is hard to believe he is the only person to exploit religious correctness in this manner’ thunders a Times editorial, having reminded readers that Islamist fighters and suicide bombers use niqab as a disguise.

The Daily Express headline calls him a ‘Police Killer’ mocking-up an image of Jama in niqab, while the story admits that he remains an unconvicted suspect. The only evidence offered that he escaped to Somalia pretending to be his sister are the suppositions of unnamed ‘police sources’.

This may be grist to the mill for those who want to ban the veil – but none of the above inspires much confidence in news journalism. If journalists rely on hearsay, half-truths, prejudice and purchased information, their output may be lapped up but their credibility is shot.

A more rigorous approach might serve the public better, especially if it shed more light on the corruption that stalks the corridors of power rather than feeding prurient interests.

Meanwhile expect editors to deny all responsibility when trials collapse and racists act on the daily drip of Islamophobia to which we have become accustomed.

Mike Jempson
Director, MediaWise

(Bulletin No 129)

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