The very name of Soham induces a strange mixture of disgust, boredom and pity. I return to it with reluctance. But we have to consider the conduct of the media, and in particular the criticisms made about the press by the Cambridgeshire coroner, David Morris, and by the Cambridgeshire police.
I’m certainly not going to defend the worst excesses of the media. The rewards offered by some newspapers are said to have encouraged hundreds of gold-digging callers to clog up police telephone lines. Some papers printed details I would very much rather not have read. The News of the World’s renewed call for ‘Sarah’s Law’, which would give parents the right to know the identity of sex offenders living in their area, seems to be a case of jumping on the wrong bandwagon at the wrong time. Then there was the nauseous sentimentality of some of the reporting, which must have encouraged the morbid day-trippers who have appalled the inhabitants of Soham.
But, with the exception of the rewards, these were in essence errors of taste on the part of the media – and errors which we can be perfectly sure will be repeated next time. The really serious accusation against the media is that they have prejudiced a fair trial by providing lurid accounts of the private lives of the defendants, Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr, during the four days between their arrest and the bringing of charges against them by the police. According to some reports, the police fear that some articles breached the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which is intended to ensure that potential jurors are not influenced by prejudicial information that might alter the course of justice. One senior police officer is quoted in the Sunday Telegraph as saying, ‘Much of the coverage has clearly been in breach of the Contempt of Court. We took great pains to let the press know that we were concerned by the coverage.’
Mmmm. If the media did publish details about Huntley’s and Carr’s private lives which might prejudice a fair trial, one has to ask where they got them from. The answer, in many cases, is the police. After the two were arrested, the police continued to share an enormous amount of information with the press. But it is certainly not the case that all the details passed on were printed or broadcast. In some instances the media respected the requests of the police not to publish certain matters. For example, information about the state of the two girls’ bodies was withheld for obvious reasons, and became public only at the inquest last week.
I have to be careful here, for I do not wish myself to be accused of prejudice. Suffice to say that the police themselves shared a piece of information with the media about Huntley which most of the media chose not to publish. Ironically, a newspaper in Grimsby appears to have alerted the police in the first instance. So far as I can see, all the English papers have behaved entirely properly. The Scottish papers, by contrast, behaved as though Scotland were a foreign country and observed no such restraint. Since these papers circulate in England, and might arguably (though I personally highly doubt it) influence a prospective juror, the authorities might have a legitimate interest in the matter. But it would be wrong to blame the tabloids because one of the newspapers which may have erred was the Scotsman. The London-based tabloids, I repeat, behaved properly.
Forgive me if all this seems a bit occluded. You will understand why. My point is very simple. First, the media were not as wild as is being made out in some quarters. They did observe restraint. Second, if the media nonetheless sometimes went over the top, the police, who are now brazenly criticising them, must share the blame. In fact, I would say that they are more to blame since they chose to divulge the information in the first place. Only a cynic would say that the police are trying to take the spotlight off their less than sparklingly brilliant investigation by criticising the media. It would require a greater cynic still to say that the police realise that they may have fallen foul of the Contempt of Court Act and are trying to get the media to carry the can. You do not need to reach these conclusions – though you may choose to do so – in order to agree that the media’s guilt is by no means as great as has been alleged.
I have often asked myself why the Frankfurter Allgemeine should be able to sell 400,000 copies a day. Why, indeed, German broadsheets should be so much less dumbed down than their British counterparts. I have toyed with the notion that the German educated classes are both more educated and more serious than we are. But can this really be true? A more plausible explanation is that Germany does not have such a competitive national newspaper market as Britain’s and there is, as yet, no German Rupert Murdoch. British broadsheets have been dumbing down for a long time, but the really decisive event was the Times’s lowering of its cover price in 1993. Murdoch understood – as did his henchman and editor, my old friend Peter Stothard – that there was no point in cutting the cover price to bring in new readers if you did not broaden the editorial mix. I know my old friend maintains that the Times has not dumbed down, but few would agree with him. As the Times dived downmarket, other titles, particularly the Daily Telegraph and the Independent, felt obliged to follow.
Well, that’s my theory anyway, and I’m sticking to it. I once visited the offices of the Frankfurter Allgemeine. Imagine an immensely well-funded and eminent scientific institute and you will get the picture. There were lots of clever-looking men (and a few women) working by themselves in silent offices lined with books and learned periodicals. One felt that if a bomb had gone off in the centre of Frankfurt, they would scarcely have looked up from their pieces about monetary cohesion or the state of German opera. It is from that point of view a rather irritating newspaper, the exact opposite of the swashbuckling British press. But every country should have at least one Frankfurter Allgemeine and we, alas, have lost ours.
Now it seems that the Germans may lose theirs. The German advertising recession is even worse than Britain’s. Newspapers are sacking staff, selling offices and closing bureaux. The Berliner Zeitung has gone under. Newspapers which have cut their cloth sensibly are best placed. Unfortunately the Frankfurter Allgemeine has been expanding recklessly. All its profits are ploughed back into the business, and in good times these are considerable. Now it has been forced to ditch its Berlin supplement and may have to close its new Sunday edition. Predators are circling the paper, including, it is rumoured, the conglomerate Bertelsmann. Naturally the Frankfurter Allgemeine will survive, and thrive again, but it may have to descend from its pedestal.