1 comment on “Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph”

Sex, death, brass bands and libel by photograph

IF you want to find mistakes in papers look at the pictures.

The Sun on Sunday has just paid out in a libel settlement after running a story about a man discovering he was the son of Fred West – but the picture they printed on the front page was the man’s half-brother who was entirely unconnected to the serial killer. It has been reported that a five figure sum has changed hands as a result.

I’ve some sympathy for the Sun on Sunday, such things are all too easily done and let me share with you the story of one such disaster, which, sadly, I had a hand in. I’ve blogged this elsewhere on a previous occasion, but it bears repetition as it highlights the legal dangers of the photograph and its caption.

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 Since then these humans, who one could have a conversation with, have been replaced by pre-recorded ‘voicebanks’, which are a journalistic dead-end and should only ever be used as a starting point for a story by any reporter worth their salt.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, and the alleged crime involved two of its members. 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 while they made love. The Daily Post at the time was intent on becoming the ‘Daily Mail of the North’ and for us the story had everything – sex, death, death caused by sex, and a brass band.

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 lot 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 man 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 killing a fellow bandsman with her amorous attentions, we accused the 16-year-old schoolgirl sitting next to her.

So, I have some sympathy with the Sun on Sunday, as I said, 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.

I’m not sure we would have been so lucky if it had happened now. Today as soon as it appeared on our website, her schoolmates would have Facebooked and Tweeted it to all and sundry, whereas we were just in print back then – chip-paper a day later – and I think that would put more pressure on the faily to take action and nail the lie of the story.

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

2 comments on “Tweeting your way into prison”

Tweeting your way into prison

I ARRIVED home one Friday evening to a flurry of messages from sports reporters who follow me on Twitter.

“You have got to get on Twitter and see what Joey Barton is up to,” they said.

I logged on to find that Barton had decided to give the world the benefit of his thoughts on the viability of John Terry’s not guilty plea to a charge of racially abusing Anton Ferdinand – a charge for which he had yet to stand trial.

Barton was typically forthright and one memorable tweet described Terry’s plea as an insult to any juror’s intelligence.

Was Barton, I was being asked somewhat hopefully it has to be said, up to his neck in contempt and would his next fixture be in court facing the Attorney General?

Fortunately for football, and Twitter’s, favourite bad boy @Joey7Barton was in the clear because Terry’s case was to be tried by magistrates, who are beyond the influence of the media, and certainly incapable of being swayed by the tweets of a footballer. Indeed, Terry was eventually found not guilty.

But as was clear from his tweet mentioning jurors, Barton didn’t know this, and nor did the many people who assumed he was about to be prosecuted for contempt.

This was a sign of things to come. Following press inquiries, the Attorney General’s office announced the following Monday that Barton would not be facing any action. But since he was appointed the AG, Dominic Grieve QC, has made it clear he takes contempt very seriously and has warned that he would prosecute bloggers and tweeters as well as traditional media if they overstepped the mark.

So it came to pass last month that two men were given nine-month suspended prison sentences after they admitted contempt by publishing on Twitter and Facebook photographs purporting to show the killers of James Bulger, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables as adults. Both are subject to a court order banning publication of any details about their new identities, location or photographs of them.

The case is the latest in a long line of incidents where ordinary members of the public have taken to social media and found themselves charged with a crime; facing substantial damages in a civil action or else doing untold damage to their own reputation through an errant post.

We are all publishers now, but mainstream publishers know the law, and even they get into trouble reasonably often. Setting up a Twitter or Facebook account is the work of moments and if memory serves does not entail a run-down of the legal pitfalls that await the unwary.

Perhaps it should, because the past year has seen a catalogue of cases illustrating the variety of ways in which individuals can break the law online.

For example, some supporters of Ched Evans, a Sheffield United and Wales footballer, took to Twitter when he was convicted of rape, naming the victim. Ten of them were tracked down by North Wales Police. They now have a criminal record for an offence under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act 1992.

Even the judicial process itself can be derailed by the injudicious use of Twitter or Facebook. One juror had to be discharged after she confessed to her Facebook friends that she was having difficulty deciding the case she was trying so asked them to help. Another was sentenced to eight months in prison after she Facebook friended a defendant she had just acquitted and gave her a running commentary on the two co-defendants that were still being tried.

Police forces are finding their time increasingly being used to investigate messages on social media.

The man who sent obnoxious tweets to diver Tom Daley after he ‘only’ managed an Olympic bronze found himself the victim of Tweetmob after the diver RTd him and then got a knock on the door from the police who issued a warning for harassment.

The Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recently issued interim guidance on when it would be suitable to prosecute such messages. However, even with that guidance in place, as more and more people sign up for such media, the caseload for police and the court can only increase.

And that is just the criminal side of the issue. The capacity for user to publish libels and breach others’ privacy on social media is huge.

A retweet takes just two button pushes, and as we saw from the Lord McAlpine libel case, several hundred people found that all too easy to do. It seems the retweeters are being let off with an apology, deletion of the tweet and a nominal donation to charity. Others who tweeted more are embroiled in actions launched by the peer.

There seems to be a perception among those who find themselves in difficulty that a post on social media is not like publication. Many will say things like it’s ‘just my opinion’ or that they were simply not aware that what they were doing was against the law.

But it is. Conversations confined to the saloon bar or the dinner party table are being committed to the internet where they are permanent and searchable.

And here lies the challenge for our lawmakers, and to an extent the publishing platforms that allow people to get into so much trouble.

It may be that well-publicised cases such as the purported Bulger killer pictures and the McAlpine libel may serve as a deterrent. If they do not have that effect then the DPP, CPS and the government perhaps need to examine the law to see whether they are content for ever-larger numbers of people to criminalise themselves in this way.

We cannot expect Twitter, Facebook, Blogger and others to police every item that is published by their users, nor would we want them to for well-founded reasons of freedom of speech. However, they could give better guidance to users when opening an account about the kinds of material that can get them into legal trouble.

If nothing is done, then the police, courts and, before long I predict, prisons are going to be busy.

If you are worried about your own, or your employees’ liability for what is published on social media, I run courses on how to make the most from these platforms, while avoiding potentially serious and costly legal problems. Contact me via the contacts page, above

7 comments on “Nigel Evans, contempt and clues about alleged victims”

Nigel Evans, contempt and clues about alleged victims

WAS Nigel Evans flirting with contempt of court by so publicly protesting his innocence on TV at the weekend?

That was the question I was asked after he had appeared before cameras to deny the allegations of rape; talk of his shock that they had been made and thank his constituents and friends for their support.

We have seen this sort of statement often recently, especially by those caught up in Operation Yewtree and other inquiries stemming from the Jimmy Savile scandal (although it must be pointed out Evans’s case is in no way linked to those wider inquiries.) Celebrity emerges from home after being released on bail to make a statement to camera insisting they are not guilty, that they will be proved so in due course and to thank their family, friends and fans for their support

Could such a statement be a problem legally? Well there is no doubt that contempt of court is a risk now. Evan has been arrested, so proceedings are active for the purposes of the contempt of court act. That means that nothing should be published or broadcast now which could cause substantial risk of serious prejudice to any future proceedings.

Will claiming you are not guilty create such a risk? If it is simply an insistence you are not guilty, then no. Thanks expressed for support are also fine. Remember any jury will be told on the first day of trial that the defendant is presumed innocent.

I do think that Stuart Hall’s recent statement, which went beyond proclaiming his own innocence to ask why those making the allegations had not reported them before, skirted the edges of contempt. And I think Mr Evans was unwise to talk about detail of one of his accusers and his recent contact with him.

I don’t believe it cleared what is quite a high bar for a contempt prosecution, even with the current Attorney General Dominic Grieve’s seeming enthusiasm for prosecution.

However, I do think what he said could be an identifying detail about one of the complainants. They get anonymity for life once they make an allegation of rape and that forbids publication of any detail that would identify them as the victim of a sexual offence.

So if anyone, not necessarily everyone, can work out who the victim is from a detail you have published or broadcast, then you are guilty of an offence, and a sexual offence at that. The detail does not have to be obvious things like the complainant’s name or address, just some fact that enables someone, perhaps someone who knows them, to put two and two together and identify them as the victim.

Victims’ anonymity lasts a lifetime and can only be lifted with their consent, that of a judge, or if they are subsequently charged with an offence in relation to the complaint such as perjury or perverting the course of justice. Any decision to prosecute is made by the Crown Prosecution Service in this instance, not the Attorney General.

 It is likely we will see more statements like that of Mr Evans, but if such accused do no want to add to their list of legal woes, they need to take care what they say

3 comments on “Here come the (thought) police”

Here come the (thought) police

A COUPLE of jurors have been in the news this week, one for speaking his mind in court, one for speaking his mind on Facebook.

One is now facing a contempt charge after he allegedly committed his thoughts on being chosen to try a man charged with sexual offences against a child to his Facebook page. He may be regretting being quite so frank in allegedly saying he “wanted to fuck up a paedophile.”

The other was a juror on a sexual offence trial in Tyneside, but his problem was not the nature of the offence, it was the origins of the offender – a Mackem (native of Sunderland) whose home team had just given the Geordie juror’s team, Newcastle United a 3-0 drubbing in the local derby. The juror was, he confessed, incapable of trying the man fairly and was discharged.

Cue outrage on Twitter at his confession, especially as the delay to the trial meant the victim had to go through evidence again.

Would we rather both had remained silent? Of course it would be preferable that all jurors arrived at trial capable of setting aside prejudice and trying the case solely on the evidence.

But if they are not capable of doing so, isn’t it better to know that?

The Toon fan made his feelings known in court, so avoided anything more than the disapproval of the court, and a vocal few on Twitter and elsewhere. The Facebooking juror is facing somewhat more serious consequences.

This raises a wider point about the way in which offensive behaviour on social media is being policed and reported by the media and it follows on from the post I wrote below, about Paris Brown.

At the moment publication on social media is being treated by the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts as just that, a form of publication, which it undoubtedly is. I would argue that it is more than that, it is fundamentally different to that.

Publication has for centuries now, involved many tiers of eyes examining an article, book or broadcast before it reached the general public. The exception being, perhaps, live TV, but even there a time delay and a watchful eye meant the public were usually spared anything too offensive.

In my own experience, any piece of writing I perpetrated had to get past a newsdesk, sub editor, chief sub editor, night editor and stone sub before it reached the paper and I, like many reporters before me, am grateful for their eternal vigilance.

Now, however the means of publication, or in the case of the retweet, re-publication, has been out in the hands of everyone. Anyone can distribute their thoughts to the multitude, in subbed, as fresh as the moment they had them. Much of it is wonderful, some of it mundane and plenty of it actionable in law.

And the instantaneous nature of social media publication, I would argue, differentiates it for any form of publishing we have seen before. If you watch a young person going at their iPhone, you realise just how slow your own thumbs are and how quickly they can commit their thoughts to the ether. And this is my fundamental point, this is less like publication and more like thought. Many users of social media, especially Twitter, are simply thinking out loud, very loud.

Of course, one might argue, it is their own fault, they know the power of the retweet, they ought know their digital thoughts become permanent and searchable for all to discover. But the vilification of the likes of Paris Brown and the juror who didn’t like paedos simply tells people to keep their thoughts to themselves. It does not address the fact that they have those thoughts in the first place.

This is what social media is showing us, that there is an ugly side to people’s nature and before they would only express it to family, close friends and those who shared their views, now they are committing it to the Internet.

And is this what we want? I think yes, I would rather know what a juror thought about me, so he could be discharged, than him keep it a secret and find me guilty.

When Orwell wrote 1984 he envisaged cameras in every home spying on our every action. This is so much more than that, we don’t need the cameras, we have Twitter, Facebook, Blogs and more where people voluntarily sign up not only to record their actions but also their very thoughts.

The thought police are here, but they weren’t sent in by Big Brother, they are us.

3 comments on “The rise, and rapid demise, of Paris Brown”

The rise, and rapid demise, of Paris Brown

A WEEK is a long time in politics and even longer in the life of a youth police and crime commissioner.

The fledgling career of Paris Brown, 17 who had won the £15k post was stopped before it even started after tweets she posted when 14 to 16 were uncovered by the Mail on Sunday.

They had found posts in which she had used the racist and homophobic terms ‘pikey’ and ‘fag’.

After an initial show of support from the Kent Police and Crime Commissioner, Ann Barnes, by yesterday it was clear things had gone too far when Kent Police announced they we investigating some of the posts on Twitter. Paris Brown announced in a press conference that she would not be taking up the post of youth commissioner.

So, was the MoS right to reveal the tweets of a teenager, and did she need to go? Well, probably yes to both questions. Here’s why.

In the normal course of things the tweets that she sent, for which she has now apologised, are not really a matter of public interest. While using those terms is always unacceptable, she was not targeting an individual in making them – she said, for instance, that the cast of Made In Chelsea all ‘looked like fags’. Unpleasant, certainly, but qualitatively different from applying that word to a individual gay person in a tweet directed at them.

So ordinarily one would say that this is probably not something that ought to concern a national newspaper and were the Daily Mail to do page leads on the offensive postings of teenagers, they would need to run a special supplement every day and a very large one at that. But they don’t, the Mail, despite views to the contrary expressed by its detractors on Twitter, and there are many, is not interested in the ill-considered tweets of the nation’s youth.

Paris Brown is only 17, and, as I tweeted yesterday, I would hate to be reminded of some of the deeply stupid things I probably said when I was that age. Pity the poor teenager today whose every tweet and Facebook post is potentially immortal, a digital albatross circling them for the rest of their life. They ought to be able to live down their indiscretions, offensive as they may be, just as those of us who grew up pre-Internet were able to do.

Many people Paris’s age use social media in the same way they would just talking in the pub – it is as full of the trite, offensive, deeply meaningful, nonsensical, emotional, heartfelt and daft as such conversations always have been. but now they are broadcast to the world, are permanent and searchable. To them a post on Facebook or Twitter is as simple and quick as thought, but they are thinking out loud, very loud.

So was the press in general and the MoS in particular, right to cover this in the way they did? This is where the public interest comes into play. Paris Brown was soon to be employed on the public purse, albeit that some of her salary would come from Ann Barnes’ own, it was still taxpayers’ money that would be funding her post. She would be responsible for engaging with people her age as part of that role. So her right to privacy has to be balanced against the public’s right to know what a public servant in this position actually thinks.

Given the fact that a youth commissioner charged with communicating with young people is inevitably going to do that by using social media, it is not unreasonable to ask what views she has expressed on those media.

It is a question that those employing her should perhaps have asked before announcing her appointment. To be fair to Ann Barnes, Ms Brown was put through Kent Police’s normal vetting process for the level of role she was taking up. That vetting process did not include looking at her postings on social media. One would imagine that that vetting process is being rapidly revised in light of recent events.

If they did not think of looking at Paris Brown’s tweets, it was blindingly obvious that any journalist worth his or her salt would do. It is what journalists do. Gay people in Kent and those from ethnic minority groups have a right to know what any public servant holding such a position thinks about them and the language they use gives you a clue.

In the end she did the right thing, which was inevitable once police were investigating, and declined the post. I suspect the police will shortly announce no further action, because if they take this to court, then they need to start building some new ones to cope with the influx of those who have posted similar and worse. She can, as she hopes, move on, and any social media consultants in Kent would do well to sign her up to provide true-life lessons to schools, colleges and universities on the perils of the intemperate post.

Paris Brown said yesterday she hoped this would stand as a lesson to young people. That is very true. Some surveys have shown that more than half of prospective employers look at potential employees social media postings, and 40 per cent of them don’t make a job offer as a result of what they find. You cast a long social media shadow, and along lasting one at that.

Ann Barnes said yesterday, referring to Leveson, that it was the role of the press to break news, but not to break people. Very true, and Paris Brown ought not to be broken by this now she has turned down her new post. But organisations cannot have it all ways, if you want your staff to engage on social media you have to accept the risks as well as the benefits that brings. You cannot control the every thought and tweet of your staff.

We are just beginning to understand the revolution in communication that social media has brought about. Paris Brown is a casualty of that revolution.

There will be many more.

12 comments on “The death of Lucy Meadows”

The death of Lucy Meadows

IN the past couple of weeks there has been significant debate over the death of a teacher called Lucy Meadows.

Briefly, Lucy was a primary school teacher, who was transgender, she had previously been Nathan Upton. A letter was sent home to parents last year explaining that in the next term, he would return as Lucy.

This was picked up by local media, and then by national press and a number of articles were run on Lucy.

On March 19 Lucy was found dead. No-one else is being sought in connection with her death. Though there has yet to be a full inquest hearing, the speculation is that Lucy took her own life. Indeed, at the opening of the inquest reference was made to previous attempts Lucy made on her own life. No dates were given for those attempts.

The fact that Lucy’s death followed her exposure in local and national media has led to understandable speculation on the part that exposure may have played in her death. One article in particular, by Richard Littlejohn in the Daily Mail, has attracted particular disapproval. in his column he said, among other things, that not only was Lucy in the wrong body, she was in the wrong job.

There have been calls for his sacking, and a peaceful candlelit vigil outside the Mail’s offices to protest at that piece.

There are two areas on which I feel able to comment. Firstly the speculation about the part press coverage played in Lucy’s death. Secondly, whether journalists have any business knocking on the doors of people like Lucy Meadows.

Some people have been measured in their commentary on the first aspect. While deploring Littlejohn’s column and what they describe as the ‘monstering’ of Ms Meadows, they do not make a direct link between the press behaviour and coverage and her death, until more evidence is heard to establish such a link.

Others have been less circumspect and have made a far more direct causal link between the coverage -the Littlejohn column in particular – and her death.

I think the latter, though I understand their anger, are mistaken.

I have been a journalist for 25 years and have covered many, many inquests. One of the first things you realise when you are sent to cover a day of inquest hearings is how depressingly common suicide is. The other thing you quickly learn as a reporter seeking an answer for your story as to why someone killed themself, is how often it is not explained.

Many of those who take their own lives leave no note, and have not given any indication of an intention to kill themselves. Frequently notes left are equivocal and do not give any clear answers as to why the person too their own life. Almost invariably coroners do not read out notes at the inquest, rather they refer to them and simply say whether they show the deceased had formed an intention to take their own life.

The inquest into Lucy Meadows’ death might give us some answers as to show she died and if she did take her own life, why she may have done that. But it equally might not. Until that inquest it is probably wise to reserve judgement on the part, if any, played by press coverage in her death.

Secondly then, have newspapers and their reports got any business ‘doorknocking’ someone in Lucy Meadows’ position?

Fundamentally, yes.

Firstly, Lucy Meadows has a right to privacy, in what must be an intensely difficult time.

Secondly, as a teacher she holds a position where her actions are going to be scrutinised.

There is a balance to be struck between those two positions and the public interest has to be taken into account.

If a teacher is transgender, that might attract comment from parents, although in Lucy’s case any negative comment seems outweighed by the positive.

But, in my view, it is not wrong to ask the question of parents what they, and their children, think about this. If it is positive, report that. Avoiding the question surely perpetuates the idea that this is something to hide, which it isn’t.

As for Littlejohn’s column. I would like to know, from those who knew her, what Lucy’s thoughts were about it. Was it something she regarded as deeply upsetting, or did she ignore it, indeed, had she even read it? I’m not defending it, but I’m not going to blame her death in it without any evidence whatsoever, which some seem prepared to do.

I would also like to know the extent to which Ms Meadows was ‘monstered’. Was this a pack camped outside the school for days on end, or was it a solitary reporter or agency asking questions at the school gate? I would like to know numbers and duration before I accept that it was a ‘monstering.’

Even those who stop short of blaming Littlejohn for Ms Meadow’s death will say, “We’ll it can’t have helped.” How do they know? They are assigning an effect to the column which is up supposition.

Those calling for Littlejohn to be sacked need to be careful that they do not use a tragic death as a means to attack a paper and writer they don’t like.

I don’t share Littlejohn’s views on transgender people, or pretty much any other minority that features in his columns, but I’m uncomfortable calling for someone to be sacked because they write something I disagree with. Freedom of expression is uncomfortable at times, but it must protect those who express views that we vehemently disagree with, or it’s not a right.

So, for what they are worth, those are my thoughts. If the press coverage did play a part in Ms Meadows’ death then perhaps we as an industry need to look harder at how we cover this issue and those it affects.