Even a child-killer should be able to sell her story

The marketplace has proved a better regulator of morals than either governments or rigid codes of ethics
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The Independent Culture
SHOULD LOUISE Woodward sell her story to the tabloid press? Should she be allowed to? Should the press pay for interviews with Louise if they are offered? In my view, the only thing that should stand in the way of such a commercial exchange would be Louise's own best interest.

Practically and pragmatically, it would be a mistake for Louise to cash in now on the dramatic events she has lived through since 4 February last year when the baby in her care, Matthew Eapen, died from a head injury. Her future depends on the support of the British public, which by and large is convinced that she is innocent.

The public here has been behind Louise throughout her trials in the United States, and she must keep it with her now. But just think what would happen if she were to make a deal with just one newspaper.

Yes, that paper would give her personal account of what happened that fateful day a full display, and no doubt the paper would come out entirely on Louise's side and be entirely supportive - just as The Mirror and The Express were with the two Saudi nurses, Deborah Parry and Lucille McLaughlin, found guilty of murdering a colleague, and who made deals with those papers.

The readers of the paper which published Louise's own story might number as many as five million, and they would no doubt be confirmed in their belief in her. But the readers of the other papers, who might number 20 million, would get a very different impression.

The tabloids that missed out on the story (either by being outbid, or deciding not to make an offer) would immediately attack and rubbish her. After all, this is just what happened in the case of the two nurses.

We might not like the fact that our popular press is more interested in circulation figures than in fighting for justice and truth, but that is how the system we've got works. And those who find themselves in the public eye have to understand how the media works.

If Louise wants to win yet more friends and influence the undecided, she should tell her story to everyone, without restriction or fee. Then no one will have a stake in rubbishing her, and all the newspapers will probably portray Louise in conformity with the positive images their readers already have of her.

There will be no loss for Louise in this, not even a financial one; for the more popular she becomes, the brighter her future for an eventual book, film and TV documentary. As time goes by, Louise will find that by having talked to everybody, and convincing them that she is innocent, there will be no criticism if she benefits in the future.

What you need in matters of public opinion is the backing of the public at large. That's the whole crux of this business: if you're liked and popular, you are likely to be believed. The trick is making sure you stay liked.

There is another side to this matter, however; and that is what the press should allow itself to do. At the moment, it has signed itself up to a code, promulgated by the Press Complaints Commission, which specifically forbids it to offer "payment for stories, pictures or information - to convicted criminals".

Fortunately, the majority of editors of popular newspapers tend to ignore this pious sentiment whenever commercial interests dictate otherwise.

This is fortunate because in a democracy, the only censor should be the court of public opinion. As a general rule, free speech need not, and should not, be interfered with. If readers don't like a story, if they think their paper is wrong to have published it, they won't buy the paper next time around. Editors will get the message very quickly when their circulation figures start to plummet downwards.

If this does not sound convincing, remember what happened to the circulation of The Sun when it blamed the Liverpool fans for the disaster that befell them at Hillsborough. The Sun still suffers poor sales in Liverpool for the callous way it reported that tragic event.

Of course, you've got to take every situation on its merits. There's a difference between Mary Bell, and the two Saudi nurses; and between the nurses and Louise Woodward. And between all of them and Myra Hindley.

But even in the case of Myra Hindley there may come a time when she is released from jail. If that were to happen, it would be because she had paid her debt to society. She'd have paid her price according to law, and even in that extreme case once she's paid the price demanded by society for her crimes, the British people should be free to choose whether or not to read newspapers that pay for her story.

Of course, the Press Code is voluntary, and newspapers can break it if they believe their readers will respond positively. The real problem comes from politicians who threaten to pass laws that would make it illegal to buy the stories of convicted criminals or their associates. Just think what would happen to the many campaigns which the press has run to free falsely convicted victims of injustice. Many have been proved to be totally innocent, after editors had paid for information from relations and others who had important knowledge.

Or consider those thugs who have been arrested in France for football violence. When they've come out after three months, if a paper wants to pay them one or two thousand pounds, we might learn why they do things like this. And we might also learn something useful about how to prevent them from causing mayhem in the future. After all, all those experts couldn't stop them; maybe we can learn how they got round the preventive procedures that were put in place. If sitting down and talking to these thugs might yield something useful; surely payment is one good way to get them talking.

It's easy to criticise the readers of The Sun and the other tabloids, to say they have no morals and no sense, and cannot be counted on to be the deciders of what is acceptable in the marketplace. But this is just not so. Look what happened when the nurses sold their stories; they lost public respect and support, and the papers that bought their stories did themselves no good either.

Politicians and moralists who prate about freedom have to learn to trust the people to use that freedom wisely. The marketplace has proved itself over the years to be a better regulator of morals than either governments or rigid codes of ethics.

The writer advises stars and organisations on press relations and publicity.