Let criminals publish and be paid

If newspaper serialisation can be justified for Nick Leeson, why not Myra Hyndley or the Wests?
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The Independent Culture
UNDER ANY strict interpretation of the convention which urges newspapers not to allow criminals to profit from their misdeeds, it is pretty clear that Nick Leeson should not be tempted to make money out of telling the story of how he came to ruin Barings Bank. But surely it is equally clear that the public interest would best be served if he were allowed to spill the beans and short of the state paying him to do so, the most practicable alternative is through commercial publication, which nowadays also involves - if the publisher is to make a profit - newspaper serialisation.

But if newspaper serialisation can be justified as in the public interest in the case of Leeson, I cannot see any logical reason why it should not be even more justified in the case of, say, Myra Hyndley or the Wests. The more we know about serial killers, and the better we can understand their side of the story, the easier it may become to prevent their evil deeds before the act. And if serial killers can get their stuff into the public prints, who is to say that the petty criminals should not be given the same privilege.

The great train robbers and such like, however, come into a more complicated category. The idea of them being paid a fortune to tell their vicious story does indeed stick in the gizzard. What is worse, if such rough diamonds could rely on the certainty of profiting from their crimes - and possibly profiting more by being identified and caught than by getting away with them - that might indeed encourage them to go ahead, since either way they would stand to make a fortune.

Unquestionably these are deep and muddy waters through which it is difficult to see clearly. In an ideal world (ie one made up of decent, responsible and public-spirited newspapers), the decision as to when to pay criminals for their stories should be left to individual editors to decide on the merits of each particular case. But clearly we no longer live, if we ever did, in such an ideal media world; in fact we live in about as un-ideal a media world as it is possible to imagine.

In other words we can be quite certain that, left to themselves, some newspapers - by no means only the tabloids - would behave even more badly in these respects than they do already. So in the interests of common sense and common decency it might seem advisable to strengthen the current voluntary code of discouragement - even to the point of legal prohibition - rather than to weaken it.

On the other hand, it also has to be recognised that there are developments - notably the change in the nature of the criminal classes - which weigh in on the other side. For our present prison population is becoming more literate as every year goes by; incomparably more capable than ever of producing works of genuine merit which might deserve publication on literary grounds alone. Not that Jonathan Aitken's recent pastiche of Oscar Wilde's Ballad of Reading Jail altogether confirms this point, but it is enough to demonstrate what I have in mind.

When Wilde went to prison, he was a great rarity. In those days, educated people seldom went to prison. But nowadays droves of them end up there. At my last reckoning there were more old Etonians among the criminal classes than in the police force. Nor is it without interest to note that in Prospect, Britain's most upmarket new literary and political monthly, the best writer by far among the regular contributors is at present residing at Her Majesty's pleasure - as, not so long ago, did one of The Spectator's most readable columnists.

What is more, most contemporary penologists cannot now speak too highly of the therapeutic benefits of encouraging prisoners to write and paint, these being two of the most successful - or least unsuccessful - ways of discouraging recidivism. Naturally enough, with crime on their minds, many of them choose to write about it; and it would seem a pity to damp their ardour (no sensible man, according to Dr Johnson, ever wrote but for money) by blocking them off from the commercial marketplace.

To be honest - most important in this context - I confess that it is not easy to know what course would be for the best. But on balance I come down on the side of allowing criminals to get paid for having their say without further let or hindrance. After all, crime writing is now a rapidly growing industry, and if professional writers who have no first-hand knowledge of the activity can exploit it for all it is worth, it seems only right to allow those amateur scribblers, many of whom have been working at the sharp end of the subject for many years, to get their snouts in the trough as well.

The writer is a former editor of The Sunday Telegraph.