17.12.03

Attorney General investigates Soham press coverage - should he be patronising the public and censuring fair comment?

Huntley was found guilty by the jury in the Soham murder trial because they found that the prosecution had - based on the evidence provided to the court - proved Huntley's guilt beyond all reasonable doubt. They did not return their verdict because of what any of the papers may have said or broadcasters aired.

The defence had already played the unfair trial card at the start of the case and presented all the press cuttings they could get their hands on. The trial judge correctly took note of this and did impose restrictions on the media during the trial and gave the jury very clear directions and cautions about being influcenced by media coverage.

It was Huntley and Carr who were on trial for what they - and in particular Huntley - had done, not the media for their coverage of this grotesque crime. So in deciding to investigate what he called 'frankly unacceptable' press coverage of the Soham trial is the Attorney General siding with the defence team's view that there was a risk of the trial being unfair? To do so would be patronising the public in general and jury in particular. We all read newspapers and watch television but that does not mean that we base our entire thought processes and beliefs on what we read, watch or hear.

The public are to a large extent capable of making up their own minds - especially if they have a trial judge to give them clear directions. Is the Attorney General suggesting or afraid that the average member of the public or a jury is that malleable that they will be biased by all they read, see or hear? If he feels juries cannot be trusted to operate fairly because of the information and news available to them in their open and democratic society then shouldn't he be examining the merits of jury trials rather than seeking to censure the media or the news it delivers?

Last year, during the police investigations in the Soham murder, the media were asked to provide their full co-operation and divulge notes and information collated and relating to Huntley and Carr. So why should it be acceptable for the media to inform the police but not the public? Had more been known about the string of allegations surrounding Huntley then perhaps people would have been alerted to the potential dangers harboured in his character. The official bodies or authorities (who Home Secretary David Blunkett has now ordered an investigation into) did know about Huntley but that knowledge was not put to much use.

There is a valid case to be made for the media being given more freedom to report on matters such as this - the newspaper headlines that so upset the Attorney General certainly have greater impact than buried social services or police files!

Further comment can be found at Guardian Online

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