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The Independent Culture
Naturally the moment the trial was over the post mortems began, forensic displays of hindsight delivered by both Public Eye (BBC2) and Dispatches (C4). On ITV, meanwhile, the end of reporting restrictions was celebrated by the screening of a long interview with Anna Marie West, an eerie shadow version of the week's earlier media confessional. What made you watch Anna Marie was the same instinct that made you watch Princess Diana - a human curiosity about lives lived in extreme conditions, a desire to get close to the extraordinary. It is, let us be honest, not very far from the instinct that led crowds of people to stand gaping outside 25 Cromwell Street - the fascination of an unfenced chasm in the ground beneath our feet. They had been able to murder because neighbours and relatives thought what they saw was "none of their business". Now it is all our business.

Dispatches and Public Eye were a little more circumspect, concentrating less on the lurid details than on the successive failures which allowed the Wests to murder undisturbed. Having attended the BBC's recent seminar on Taste and Decency, and having heard there the unbroadcastable evidence that was emerging at the trial, I'm inclined to think this was practicality rather than noble self-restraint. They simply could not go further than they had already, apart from taking you on a quick guided tour of "the House of Horror". In both programmes you saw the same vacant rooms, the same torn newspaper and corner basins. In both programmes you unwillingly found yourself peopling those dumb spaces with blurred images of what had taken place there.

Of the two, Public Eye was the more dignified, less prone to add a sob of cello to the soundtrack or a darkening filter to the sky. But both programmes made an almost identical case - that the police and social services had repeated opportunities to sound the alarm and failed to do so. Because information was held separately and never combined, suspicion couldn't reach critical mass. Even the fragments, though, looked quite volatile enough from our privileged angle. These days you can't have your family snaps processed without a visit from the social services. Back then, apparently, a pregnant daughter with bruises aroused no suspicion. What was stranger still was that the police clearly had a curious sort of intimacy with the Wests' life, while the murders were taking place.

One officer recalled that his own mother had lodged in Cromwell Street, which seemed a little odd given that the address was already notorious for petty crime and prostitution. Another remembered encountering Fred West in a cafe frequented by police informers. Yet another witness recalled being asked by police whether West had pornography in the house, though it wasn't clear whether this came before or after an anonymous tip-off that West had been boasting about "snuff movies". Public Eye also raised the mystery of why the serious sexual assault on Caroline Owens was tried in a Magistrate's Court rather than a Crown Court. Two important questions weren't put, perhaps because they were too difficult to answer. Was Fred West ever a paid police informer himself? Did police officers ever visit Cromwell Street for less than professional reasons?

Both Public Eye and Dispatches left you feeling that the full truth of the story hasn't yet emerged. They also left you in no mood to accept the conventional cliches of damage-limitation from senior policemen. You were offered a choice example on News at Ten: "These two went to extraordinary lengths to avoid detection," said Tony Butler, Gloucestershire's Chief Constable. He must have been talking about the fact that they pulled the curtains before they tortured their victims to death. News at Ten, to its shame, let this feeble bit of spin pass unchallenged.

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