Salacious Crime Reporting in the National Press
by TIM HICKS.
Two recent stories published in the national media make me bemoan irresponsible press coverage.
- The Domino’s Pizza affair
A Bridlington couple who had sex openly in Domino’s Pizzas in Scarborough have been convicted by Scarborough Magistrates of outraging public decency. BBC Report here.
Magistrates are chosen from local people of good character and standing, so that their views and judgment reflect local sentiment and public opinion. The chair of the bench described the behaviour of this couple, which took place in full view of the street as “disgusting”.
Yet one national newspaper ran a story lauding their behaviour as if it was commendable, or normal.
The two individuals concerned gloried in the press coverage, acting as if they were celebrities.
On a point of principle, it saddens me that journalists would praise criminal conduct and feed the desire for publicity of criminals. They have, in short, rewarded criminality. In my opinion that was wrong and unethical.
- Operation Conifer – the enquiry into allegations of sexual abuse by Sir Edward Heath.
The second was this article from the Daily Mail and others like it on the investigation into allegations of historical child sexual abuse against Sir Edward Heath, which has been in progress for some time, by Wiltshire Constabulary under Chief Constable Mike Veale.
At the request of Wiltshire Constabulary, the North Yorks Enquirer assisted in one aspect of this investigation concerning any evidence our investigation may have uncovered of contact between Sir Edward Heath and Scarborough’s Mayor Peter Jaconelli.
Based on this contact with the Wiltshire Police team, the conduct of the investigation appeared to be highly professional.
The NYE has followed events in the enquiry with great interest, whilst ensuring we would do nothing that would in any way prejudice or retard the investigation. However, and unfortunately, this has not been the case with other media organisations and some public figures. A summary of some of the public comments by public figures can be read here.
The NYE’s coverage on Operation Conifer can be read here and here. It includes the very measured response of Chief Constable Veale to this uninformed speculation, which he believed was potentially having a “prejudicial impact upon a live ongoing investigation”.
He has been supported in this concern by Chief Constable Simon Bailey, national lead for child protection at the National Police Chief’s Council, who featured recently in an NYE article on child protection. Chief Constable Bailey has been quoted by the Daily Mail as cautioning against attempts to ‘undermine’ Chief Constable Veale and stressing that police must be able to “carry out investigations with complete independence without commentary which threatens to undermine the process”.
Chief Constable Mike Veale: Trying to impartially conduct a sensitive investigation, despite intrusive media comment
Yet newspapers still insist on publishing speculation and derogatory comments by politicians, instead of waiting to let the investigation take its course and assessing the Wiltshire investigation once the report has been issued officially.
One of those complaining about the investigation is Lord Armstrong of Ilminster. I met Lord Armstrong when I participated with him in a BBC Radio 4 “Today Programme” broadcast on the findings of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life.
Lord Armstrong was formerly Private Secretary to Sir Edward Heath and appears to me to be acting out of misplaced personal loyalty. It should not be forgotten that Sir Edward Heath’s reputation is best-served by a full and open investigation uncompromised in any way by press comment. A spokesman for the Sir Edward Heath Charitable Foundation, which operates the museum at his home in Salisbury is quoted in a BBC Report as saying: “We wholeheartedly believe (the investigation) will clear Sir Edward’s name and we will co-operate fully with the police in their enquiries”.
The NYE investigation into Peter Jaconelli – an influential and senior Conservative Party politician – revealed that he was a child abuser and rapist, and routinely enticing children into prostitution. As with our investigation, the Wiltshire Police investigation has been subjected to unjustifiable criticism from entrenched political interests from the very start. Some of it has been personalised and directed at Chief Constable Veale, unfairly in my view.
Operation Conifer reveals a key conflict between the media and the police. On the one hand, the media has to hold public bodies including the police to account, for instance concerning large amounts of public money spent on historical investigations. But beyond that there is an overwhelming requirement to do nothing that will prejudice an on-going police investigation, or cause distress to victims of crime. This is particularly true in sensitive historical investigations into child abuse, when the police are appealing for victims of sexual abuse to come forward to them.
The conduct of Operation Conifer can only be assessed once the report has been issued. Until then, it should be allowed to run its course unhindered by unethical press speculation, entrenched political interests and people motivated by misguided loyalty.
The NYE will continue to monitor Operation Conifer and keep our readers informed of progress, but in a responsible way, as our readership would expect.