Media: Did the messengers shoot themselves?: Coverage of the Taylor sisters' trial was sensational but far from extraordinary. Heather Mills reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
LAST WEEK the media were found guilty - alongside police officers - of causing the latest miscarriage of justice, which saw two young sisters jailed for a murder they did not commit.

In an unprecedented Court of Appeal judgment, the media were convicted of 'unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading' coverage of the trial of Michelle and Lisa Taylor. Reporting was judged so bad that it created a 'real risk of prejudice'. And so bad that newspapers and television companies involved were reported to the Attorney General to see if editors should be charged with contempt.

It was not the first time that news coverage was judged to be prejudicial. In 1990 the Court of Appeal freed two men and a woman who had been sentenced to 25 years for plotting to kill Tom King, the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and others. During their trial, Mr King and Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, had discussed government plans to curtail the right to silence, thereby signalling that the three's exercise of that right might imply guilt.

But this was a classic case of 'blaming the messenger' for reporting what were judged to be overwhelmingly prejudicial remarks. The Taylor sisters' case is different in that it is the press coverage of the trial itself which has been found to be prejudicial.

But was the coverage so extraordinary? The answer is probably no. Any story with the ingredients of murder or sexual intrigue is bound to attract exceptional treatment. And this had both. Michelle Taylor, who had been having an affair with John Shaughnessy, had, with her sister, allegedly killed his wife in a jealous rage. It was Hollywood as real life - a true Fatal Attraction.

'Love crazy mistress butchers wife' screamed one headline. 'Killer at Wedding', 'Killer wept as she stroked her victim's hair'. These all appeared while the trial was in progress.

Perhaps what set it apart from other 'sensational' coverage and what formed the main complaint concerned a video recording of Michelle at John and Alison's wedding, which was not shown to the jury. As well as its being broadcast on the news, five newspapers froze a still from it so that what was clearly - on the video - a peck on the cheek between Michelle and Mr Shaughnessy appeared - in the press - to be a mouth-to-mouth kiss.

And it was this highly emotive photograph, with its 'Judas Kiss' and 'Cheats Kiss' headlines, that also attracted most criticism from the appeal judges. It can be a contempt of court to publish during a trial anything not made available to a jury.

Most newspapers, however, were swiftly on the defensive. In a statement, the Sun said it 'totally refuted the judges' claim that the Sun published anything inaccurate or prejudicial. Our coverage of the trial of the Taylor sisters was based on the facts presented to the jury.

'Lord Justice McCowan accuses us of sensational reporting. He overlooks the fact that this was a sensational case: a murder trial of two sisters that involved adultery and a hate-filled diary.'

The still, it said, illustrated a fact that had been presented to the jury - that Michelle was at the couple's wedding.

But defence lawyers argue that introducing material not available to the court and continually repeating prosecution claims in lurid headlines give weight to what they have long argued: in high-profile cases reporting appears biased in favour of the prosecution. The Crown's case is given prominent and unquestioning coverage while defence arguments are often all but ignored.

In their book Media Law, the barristers Geoffrey Robertson QC and Andrew Nicol criticise the press for covering the prosecution's opening of a trial, melting away for much of the evidence and defence and then returning 'vulture-like' for the verdict.

Gareth Peirce, a solicitor who has represented many people who have suffered wrongful convictions, such as the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, says: 'Certainly, in some cases, it is as if the prosecution has got itself an extra arm.'

But few people care about press reports if the right person ends up in jail. No one will argue over labels such as 'evil' and 'monster', which put the likes of Dennis Nilsen or Peter Sutcliffe at the top of tabloid demonology. It is only when something goes dreadfully wrong, as in the Taylors' case, that the behaviour of the media is examined.

This happened during the trial of the three men wrongly convicted of murdering PC Keith Blakelock during the 1985 Broadwater Farm riots. The trial judge said that some coverage had been 'reprehensible'. He publicly condemned the Sun newspaper for publishing a photograph of Winston Silcott during the trial, when identification was likely to be an issue. But when Mr Justice Hodgson later himself described Mr Silcott as 'vicious and evil', he gave authority to one-sided media coverage.

More recently, when Patrick Murphy was wrongly arrested for a bomb attack on Whitehall, headlines labelled him 'IRA's Mr Big'. When the Crown subsequently dropped the charges - after discovering that at least 11 people at an Alchoholics Anonymous meeting could give him a cast-iron alibi - no members of the press were present.

Gareth Peirce comments: 'I had to telephone around trying to get newspapers interested in order to publicly restore his good name.' She, like other defence lawyers, is critical not only of what she calls 'overt' collusion between press and police, but also 'covert' collusion. Pictures of police marksmen and high-security measures surrounding some trials 'cannot fail to convey an impression to jurors that these are dangerous people'.

The Bar concerns lie with press coverage not only during a trial but also immediately afterwards, when information gleaned from police and others, which could not be adduced as evidence in court, is often printed as fact.

This happened in the Taylor sisters' case, when after the trial Michelle was portrayed as a martial arts killer with a penchant for collecting knives.

The fact is that what happened in this trial will have struck an uncomfortable chord in most journalists who have covered court cases but not sat conscientiously through the entire case.

The UK Press Gazette, the journalists' weekly trade paper, said in its editorial on Monday: 'The truth is that, very often, court reporting in newspapers and, often more so, on television and radio is wilfully negligent. . . .' It concluded that 'ultimately justice may be done in the courts, but it can go unnoticed in the newspapers'. It called for tightening up of the Press Complaints Commission code governing court reports.

But even the press's sternest critics say the contempt law under which editors can be fined, jailed or both is more than adequate to deal with inaccurate reporting. As Michael Mansfield QC, whose book Presumed Guilty has just been published, says: 'If the press are going bananas and there is any risk of prejudice, then I think there is duty on the trial judge to stop it. The judge can, if necessary, ban reporting until the end of the trial, or order a retrial. But the response from the judges to complaints about reporting has always been sanguine. What I am hoping as a result of this judgment is that trial judges and lawyers will become more robust in the face of such press activity.

'I know there is a strong argument for press freedom,' he adds. 'Well, unhappily, I am afraid to say that if this is the kind of freedom they are exercising it has to be stopped.'

He believes a hefty fine or imprisonment for offending editors might prove a deterrent. But while the Attorney General brings two or three contempt actions a year, few are successful. 'Surprising though it may seem, the courts are very robust in the defence of press freedom,' says a spokesman. The last time he 'took on' several newspapers was in 1983 over reports which preceded the trial of Michael Fagin, who broke into the Queen's bedroom. Even then the Attorney General succeeded against only two of the five newspapers.

Most of the press incurred the damning criticism of the Court of Appeal last week, including the Independent.

As the UK Press Gazette noted this week, no one covering courts can afford to ignore such condemnation - the Court of Appeal said the press had no more right to presume guilt than the police who suppressed evidence that might have led to the Taylors' acquittal.

'This is not simply a national (media) problem,' the Gazette noted. 'Up and down the country, court cases are being mugged for good copy and then left to drag their tiresome way on alone. Sometimes the result isn't even covered. We are dealing here with people's lives, liberty and wellbeing.'

There is no doubt that coverage of the Taylor case was unremitting. It was extensive and it was sensational. But that is not a crime. The jury in the form of the Attorney General is still out on whether it was also inaccurate and misleading.

It remains an unhappy fact that had the police not concealed crucial evidence that pointed to the sisters' innocence, perhaps the media would not have ended up in the dock.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments