BBC news bulletins on Friday evening declared that the Dowler family had been let down by three institutions over the murder of Milly. The police were accused of incompetence for failing to arrest her killer, Levi Bellfield, for many years. The courts were supposedly at fault because during the trial just ended Bellfield's defence counsel, Jeffrey Samuels, cross-examined the Dowler parents in an aggressive way. And, according to the BBC, the media were guilty of ruining a separate trial because of their irresponsible reporting.
It is impossible to acquit Surrey police of the first charge. They have themselves apologised for many errors. The accusation against Mr Samuels is less straightforward. He was undoubtedly extremely combative – some would say pointlessly so, since his client, Bellfield, was already a convicted murderer. On the other hand, he was arguably fulfilling his duties under our adversarial system to do his utmost for his client. Surely the judge, Mr Justice Wilkie, was more to blame for not reining in Mr Samuels, as he was perfectly entitled to do.
It was this same Mr Justice Wilkie who on Friday morning pulled stumps on the separate trial of Bellfield on a charge of attempting to abduct 11-year-old Rachel Cowles the day before Milly was murdered. Without naming any media organisations, the judge described coverage following the Dowler verdict as "deplorable". He had been forced to dismiss the jury because "the trigger had been pulled too soon" by the media, and he referred the issue to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, for possible contempt of court.
Some people will instinctively blame the tabloids and others for irresponsible behaviour, and side with the judge. Is this fair? It is true that, following Bellfield's conviction for Milly's killing on Thursday, the next day's papers were full of speculation about other ghastly murders he might have committed. But Mr Justice Wilkie could have warned the media to go easy because there was another trial. Moreover, there can't be a juror in the land unaware that Bellfield was already a convicted murderer about whom there was endless incriminating material available on the internet.
No one doubts the media can act recklessly. Last December some papers virtually fitted up the ex-public-school teacher Chris Jefferies for the murder of Jo Yeates, as I observed at the time, though he had not been charged, and was soon released by the police. Another man, Vincent Tabak, awaits trial for the killing. Had Mr Jefferies come to court, it is conceivable a jury would have been prejudiced against him, which explains why the Attorney General is pursuing contempt proceedings against The Sun and Daily Mirror.
But it is hard to see why the media should be blamed in this case, and I would be astonished if Mr Grieve took matters further. It may be instructive that the same judge who gave a free rein to Mr Samuels in his cross-examination of the Dowlers should so vehemently castigate the media for its supposed deficiencies. This may reflect a growing hostility felt by the senior judiciary towards the tabloid press, arising from the heated stand-off over super-injunctions. At all events, the BBC can put the police and courts in the dock if it likes but not, on this occasion, the media.
What the papers refuse to say
Newspapers don't like to be seen cooperating openly with the police, though they may have secret bonds, such as have existed between the News of the World and the Metropolitan Police. This anxiety not to appear to be colluding with the forces of law and order presumably explains the refusal of the Sunday Times to hand over a tape recording of a conversation between Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, and his former wife, Vicky Price, as well as a signed statement by her. It has been suggested that she accepted three penalty points on her licence incurred by her husband in 2003, something he has denied.
The paper has now been ordered by a court in Essex to produce both objects, and is considering an appeal. Its position is somewhat difficult to understand. After all, there is nothing (I suppose) in either the recording or the statement which the Sunday Times has not yet published. It has been in the forefront of papers trying to nail Mr Huhne. One can appreciate that it does not wish to appear as though acting as a nark, but surely its own conviction that Mr Huhne was at fault, combined with a proper inclination to be on the side of law and order, should persuade it to cooperate. My guess is that it will now do so, which may be bad news for Mr Huhne.
A dance to the music of time?
Last Wednesday's Daily Mail carried a touching item about the author Eleanor Berry, whose late father, Lord Hartwell, was proprietor of the Daily Telegraph until 1986. Ms Berry was refused entrance to the Ritz hotel in London, supposedly because she was wearing unsuitable clothes, namely a leopardskin. What the story did not mention is that the Ritz is owned by the Barclay brothers, proprietors of the Telegraph. There is an Antony Powell-like piquancy to this that has to do with the whirligig of time – the daughter of the erstwhile owner of the paper being turned away by an employee of its current owners.