How low should we go?

Where to draw the line at revealing the grisly minutiae of the West trial? Polly Toynbee argues that there is a legitimate interest in gore

How much do you want to know about what Rosemary and Fred West are accused of doing to young girls? Do you want every detail, exactly what was done with a vibrator or roll of adhesive tape, how many lashes, exactly where on the genitals, and how much force it takes to sever a head? Or will "severe sexual abuse" do?

As, day by day, pages of disgusting detail unfold, do you find your eye ineluctably drawn towards it, or do you wince and turn away? There is something shameful about poring over the minutiae of this sex and butchery, something not to be caught reading without embarrassment. To be sure, it is "news" unrolling in the Winchester courtroom, but is it news we really need to know?

Hardened professionals, police, lawyers and reporters are obliged to sift through it, but the rest of the public can, mercifully, be spared. Once we understand that dreadful things were done to these girls, why not draw a veil of decency across the details? Once heard, some of those images can never be erased, inflicting scars upon the psyche we might not wish. Where is the significance? This is just one of those warped excrescences of behaviour without meaning, as random as an earthquake.

Some commentators have sought social significance. The case, they say, may be symbolic of a lost society where so many young girls can vanish without trace. We can question the role of social workers, police, neighbours, schools and the Wests' friends who did nothing for all those years. The questions of gross contempt and interference with witnesses will be asked later. Despite the circus of the OJ Simpson trial, had any of the witnesses in that case sold their stories in advance, the US courts would have thrown them out. But all this is flimsy justification for our keen interest in the case, set beside the sheer magnitude of the brutishness on show. Even if those questions turn out to be salient, we hardly need the graphic details in order to draw some useful social lessons.

On the other hand, it is not, perhaps, for newspapers to decide what you, the reader, can or cannot bear to know. After all, you can always turn the page if it disgusts too much. There it is, laid out, the evidence for all to see. Why is your eye drawn to the very last scrap of evidence? Perhaps, uneasily, you fear the only reason is titillation, pandering to base impulses, revelling vicariously in the depths of depravity?

But there may be better reasons why we want to read about it. The West case may be an example of the infinite vileness that can linger behind any ordinary lace-curtained window in any ordinary town, the monstrous mingling with the mundane. The case reminds us that savagery is not far beneath the skin, a part of each of us, contaminating everyone as a part of the human whole. It is, in grotesque exaggeration, a shared sexuality turned macabre, sexual fantasy run riot in the flesh.

With the Moors Murders or James Bulger's death, people mark the passage of time and the acquiring of a sombre if unwelcome wisdom. Are you old enough to remember the tapes played in court of a child begging for mercy at the hands of Brady and Hindley? There is meaning and significance buried in the detail of these stories, exchanged between us in shocked undertones, even if the most obscene facts are censored on the page, as they were in the Bulger and Yorkshire Ripper trials.

Like most other news organisations, the Independent has agonised over this. We have ended up, so far, giving less graphic detail than the other broadsheets. But we do not know that we are right. Heated discussion broke out when I asked the news desk about our policy. The news editor asserted that our readers were the sort of people who did not want to be affronted with intrusive, prurient detail, when all they needed to know was the key evidence on which the case turned. But his deputy disagreed. She thought people needed and wanted to know more. As with most news judgements, there is no "right" answer. In court, the atmosphere among the journalists is uncharacteristically tense, with none of the usual jokes.

The reporters assigned to the West story realised the full abomination of what they were in for at the committal proceedings. One of the BBC's team of journalists was so anguished by the evidence that he asked to be taken off the story. Joshua Rozenberg, legal affairs correspondent, now ensconced in Winchester for the grim duration, gave warning seminars to groups of editors, but as he read out some of the evidence, they asked him to stop. The BBC's edict tells reporters to use no florid adjectives and only broad brush descriptions. Quite apart from the children who might be watching, for reasons not wholly rational there seems to be a chasm between what people can stand to hear said in a broadcast, and what they choose to let their eye read on the page.

The Press Association pumps out the full information every day for news editors to peruse. The PA says it censors little, since its service does not reach the public. "It's up to each news organisation to decide what to do with it." All the newspapers have censored their coverage so far, but to varying degrees. Although the tabloids shout loudest, with the boldest headlines and pictures, they may not necessarily carry as much sexual and forensic detail as some of the more sober-looking broadsheets.

When Caroline Owens gave evidence about the sexual assault of which the Wests were found guilty in 1971, no paper printed it in full. The Sun's editor, Stuart Higgins, says he judges by his own personal taste, wielding the blue pencil himself. He pointed out gleefully that the Guardian (all the editors I spoke to picked on the Guardian's surprisingly garish coverage at the outset of the trial) carried more than the Sun when it included one line he had struck out of his reporter's copy: "I could feel fingers inside me and they were discussing my genital area." The Telegraph news desk was disarmingly frank in admitting that it gets away with a lot more of the "nasty stuff" under cover of its veneer of respectability. However, studying the papers closely, the differences seem pretty marginal. Since it depends on an editor's personal squeamishness, there will be fluctuations in sensitivities within and between the papers as the case continues.

The reader often plays an ambivalent role, disapproving of the means by which stories reach the press, yet devouring the ill-gotten gains of cheque book or foot-in-the-door journalism all the same. Something of the same disquiet afflicts readers in the West case. Even while reading the vile stuff avidly, they may wonder why a respectable newspaper like this would print it at all. To be cynical, the answer is partly that if we didn't, dear reader, your eye would stray to other newspapers on the stand. But another reason is that we all want to know the details because we always seek to know the very worst about ourselves, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

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