Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Guilty until proven innocent ?

This lunchtime the BBC reported on the arrest of two people in connection with a truly terrible house fire in which six children died. The initial report identified the people who had been arrested.

The BBC then cut to a live interview with a senior police officer involved with the case who wa appealing for anyone who knew anything which might shed light on the circumstances of the fire to come forward. He began his remarks by emphasising that the police had not released the identities of the people who had been arrested, adding that it was extremely important not to have the kind of press coverage which might prejudice the minds of potential jurors and make it impossible for anyone who might eventually be charged to get a fair trial.

And at the very time that the police spokesman was emphasising that they had not named the individuals who had been arrested and explaining why care was needed in reporting the case to ensure a fair trial, the BBC had a banner up at the bottom of the screen which did identify the people who had been arrested. The banner stayed up for the better part of a minute, while the very information which the police spokesman was suggesting should not be given repeatedly flashed accross it.

Anyone who thinks back to some of the high-profile criminal cases of the last two decades should have no difficulty in understanding why the policeman was right to make the point that an accused person should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, and we should avoid publicity which might prejudice potential members of a jury.

There have been plenty of examples where a person was arrested in connection with a horrible murder and eventually proven to be completely innocent. In the meantime half the country was being led to believe that the poor devil was a vile killer. The most extreme case was Colin Stagg who was wrongly suspected of murdering Rachel Nickel on Wimbledon Common, until DNA evidence finally identified the real killer.

It is very fortunate that we have an independent judiciary in this country: had a judge not ruled that most of the so-called "evidence" against Stagg was dangerous and unfit to go before a jury, it is only too easy to see how a bandwagon could have developed which resulted in an innocent man going to prison for many years.

There is a well established legal principle against printing material which might make it impossible for a forthcoming trial to be fair, which is called the "sub judice" rule. The media have been pushing against that rule for decades, but the BBC's behaviour today was particularly blatant.

In the age of social media, it is becoming increasing difficult to control any information whether for bad reasons, to avoid embarrasment to the powerful or the guilty, or for good reasons, to defend the public interest or ensure that someone gets a fair trial. But the effort has to be made.

Otherwise who knows which of us will be next to be judged guilty until proven innocent?

The arrest of Rebecah Brooks shows only too clearly how the pendulum can swing.

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