Magnus Temple: Why I was right to pay Tony Martin's burglar

Film-maker Magnus Temple was condemned for giving money to a convicted burglar. That's not fair, he argues
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Tony Martin. Rarely does a single name strike so hard at the centre of an issue. He'd become an icon and we were about to interview him. It was January last year and we'd started production on a drama documentary about the infamous night he'd shot and killed 16-year-old burglar Fred Barras on his Norfolk farm. Although he still lives on the farm he's not keen even on invited guests and we met at a nearby hotel. He no longer ventures into the house and instead sleeps in his car. He displayed signs of his unorthodox living arrangements and he clearly hadn't bathed in a number of days. And yet despite the eccentricity he had the presence and theatrical delivery of an old character actor.

When he began to speak of previous burglaries, he spoke of that common feeling of violation that brought home why this case has chimed with so many.

"Somebody had been in my house and it was a very strange sensation. It spoils the way of life and you just don't know what's going to happen next," Martin told us. "When you have your house broken into, you become devastated, actually, you do feel slightly suicidal."

Martin's story of the night of 20 August 1999 is one every householder fears. He was awoken by the sound of shattering glass. Should he stay in his bedroom or confront the burglars?

"When a person breaks into your house, they have a choice. You don't have a choice. The only choices you have are put upon you, they're forced upon you. Which way you're going to go depends on your make-up, your experiences," Martin said.

But his account of the shooting itself was perhaps most telling, and began to belie his folk hero image. Fixing us with an intense stare he related the moment he shot the gun, but with a detachment that was chilling.

"A lot of people think nothing of picking a brick up and smashing it over your head. All these things in a very brief second or trillionth of a second, all these things come to mind. And that's what basically triggered me to pull the trigger, basically. Sorry about the pun but that's how it is. It's pressure. Something happens to you. Once you pull the trigger, you don't stop."

This was quite a coup for Firefly, the independent production company we'd recently set up. Our first BBC1 commission and one which we hoped would continue our reputation for smart, edgy, factual programming. And it did make its mark, but perhaps not quite how we'd envisaged.

Martin's account was clearly only half the story. There was only one other living witness to that night's events - Brendon Fearon, one of the two burglars who'd broken into Martin's farm. Although this career criminal could hardly be said to be the most reliable witness, he was the only one we had. A definitive account of the case would be impossible without him, though he'd not spoken on camera before.

We met him in a pub on his home turf of Newark. He is one of life's chancers but also carries the burden of the guilt of leaving his young accomplice to die, not to mention the notoriety of being Britain's best-known burglar. Although resentful that the story had only been told from one side it was clear this wouldn't be enough of an incentive for him to raise his head above the parapet. After five years of abuse, people were just beginning to forget the name Brendon Fearon.

Fearon made it clear that under no circumstances would he be interviewed without payment. The BBC's editorial guidelines are quite clear that criminals should not normally be paid for contributing to programmes. The only time it can be considered is in a case of exceptional public interest and then only with the authorisation of the BBC's Controller of Editorial Policy.

I felt there was a case of public interest here. As recently as last year the government delivered guidelines to try to clarify under which circumstances you could use lethal force against intruders. Tony Martin has long been used as a figurehead for those campaigning for a change in the law, but I believed that an understanding of his case was often lost in the mythology. Many remain bemused at a law that can convict a man who protects his home from intruders of murder. How could we seek a full understanding without both sides of the story? A precedence had already been set within this very case when the Mirror paid Tony Martin £125,000 for his story and was cleared of wrongdoing by the PCC for having done so.

The suggested payment to Fearon was tiny compared to the Mirror's payout to Martin, and after much thought and debate at the BBC a fee was approved and he travelled to London.

Brendon Fearon is neither the most forthcoming nor articulate of interviewees and it was initially difficult to make sense of much of what he said. But by repeatedly going over the events, a picture began to emerge, an account that hadn't been heard before. Fearon told us that Tony Martin must have heard them arrive and was lying in wait.

"The dog was making a lot of noise, we was falling and making a lot of noise, and the dog was chasing us. He would have been watching everything." Fearon says that once they placated the dog, they climbed into what they thought was a deserted building.

"The minute I got in the place, all of a sudden, bang, bang, bang. And then the flashing lights. Then it went jet black. I'd say seconds of getting in there, ten seconds, and then shooting, from when I got in the house is ten seconds," he said.

A stark contrast to Martin's account of being woken by the intruders already entering the house. And while one man's word against another, the ballistics tend to bear out Fearon's account.

And so with Fearon also on tape we began to pick up the more peripheral interviews and put together the drama shoot.

A couple of weeks after meeting Fearon I had a rude awakening at seven one morning. A phone call to say that Fearon's payment had been picked up by the press and the story was the lead item on BBC Radio 4's Today programme. A hurried journey into work followed, past newsstands with headlines expressing outrage that licence fee payers' money had been used to pay a convicted burglar.

We'd played it by the book, and although criticism was directed at the BBC, they defended the payment on the grounds of public interest and the film's principles. BBC commissioning editor Richard Klein, at home with flu, dragged himself from his bed to give a staunch defence seemingly to every major news outlet.

I knew now that this film would be scrutinised like no other I'd been involved in. A compelling and detailed account of the night of 20 August 1999 began to emerge. I believe the combination of the testimonies from both main surviving protagonists provides the clearest picture yet of what happened.

And although neither is a particularly sympathetic character, you can feel for both their experiences. One is a man with an enormous sense of place and connection to the land, feeling under siege in the one place where we all want to feel safe. The other, from an altogether more transient world of petty theft, endured a terrifying ordeal, and achieved a notoriety that he'll probably never shake off.

To Kill a Burglar: The Tony Martin Story, made by Firefly productions, is on BBC 1 on Thursday 16 March at 9pm