Pity the man who must spend the next year listening to Fred West

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WHAT would have happened if the trial of Rosemary West had been held in Scotland? The answer, I think, though I don't take particular glee from it, is that several newspaper editors and television executives would be shaking in their shoes. They take a tough line on contempt of court in Scotland, and paying witnesses for their stories before they have told them to the judge and jury is (if discovered) a pretty certain route to the charge of prejudicing a fair trial or perverting the course of justice.

In England the chief risk seems to be that Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney-General, will appear on Newsnight and talk mildly about taking a fresh look at the law; and that the Press Complaints Commission will convene to wonder once again what it can do to make newspapers observe its famous self-regulatory code of conduct, which among other things forbids payments to witnesses or potential witnesses in criminal trials. One might not want to go all the way with the QC Geoffrey Robertson's description last week of the Press Complaints Commission as an "utter fraud ... a confidence trick ... funded by and acted entirely in the interests of the media and newspaper industry". I draw back from the word "utter". But the truth is that its judgments do not make editors shake in their shoes.

In any case, I can't see what the commission has to do with enforcing the law as it exists. If the conduct of the media during the West case prejudiced (or even risked prejudicing) the trial, then the judge could surely have had the guilty parties brought before him (including, perhaps, John Birt, because the BBC paid pounds 750) and given them a wigging. If, on the other hand, the conduct of the media had no effect on the administration of justice, then last week's concern arises from no more than a vague, almost aesthetic unease about the way we live now. People want to be paid for information, because they realise that they supply the raw material of the ratings and circulation wars. Why should Vertically- Integrated Global Media Inc make all the dosh?

THE ENGLISH legal establishment may have reason to be cautious. It has other problems. The diffident Sir Nicholas Lyell may be jolted awake by the Scott report when it eventually appears. And then there is the curious case of the Official Solicitor, Peter Harris, and his role in arranging the "official" biography of Frederick West.

The publicly available version of how this happened can be briefly told. West hangs himself in prison. He dies intestate. He has no adult relatives available as his executors. His wife is awaiting trial. Gloucester's social services department asks Mr Harris to act on behalf of the five West children who are under the age of majority (18). Mr Harris steps in as the administrator of the West estate, part of which is an illiterate 100-page memoir entitled I Only Ever Loved an Angel that West has written in prison. The Official Solicitor approaches a London literary agency called Scott Ferris. Scott Ferris finds an author, Geoffrey Wansell, and a publisher, Hodder Headline. Hodder pays up - guesses range from pounds 100,000 to pounds 1m - the author and agent take their share of the advance, and the rest, including a share of future profits goes into the West estate. The Official Solicitor has done his duty by maximising the estate's value. The gloss is that Mr Wansell is a "respectable" writer and will produce an "unsensational" account; and also that the younger of West's eight children will benefit rather than the three elder, who have sold their stories, or Mrs West.

Mr Wansell, no doubt, is a respectable writer. His recent biography of Terence Rattigan is short-listed for the Whitbread Prize. The part about the children, however, is not quite true. Last week I talked to lawyers, the Official Solicitor's office and Mr Wansell, and though none of them could be quite definite (the words "as I understand it" were spoken a lot), it seems that West's estate is open to anyone who can make a successful claim on it - the elder children, relatives of the dead, living victims, even Mrs West herself. As they understood it, Mrs West has waived any claim. But, also as they understood it, there was nothing in law to prevent her from profiting from her husband's estate if she so chose.

A much larger question about the deal stems from the sale of the interviews which the police had with West. How this came about is completely unclear - nobody is offering an "as I understand it" on this one, though the tapes and/or their transcripts clearly came from one of West's lawyers, who would have them under the rules of disclosure. Perhaps the Official Solicitor knew, as he should, that under the 1988 copyright law a person's words remain that person's property unless they have been signed away to another party. He would certainly know (as many of us might not, still) that we all have the right to see and possess statements made by ourselves to the police for legal purposes. Knowing all this, he may have decided that the 110 hours of taped interviews were clearly a part of the estate and should be bundled up with the dreadful I Only Ever Loved an Angel in the offer to Scott Ferris. Equally likely, if you will forgive the sceptical thought, is that it didn't occur to the Official Solicitor at all, until he was encouraged to think of it by a publisher or agent saying: "West's writing is very interesting, but we can't make a book out of that crap on its own."

THE Chief Constable of Gloucester is not happy about all this. Earlier this month he issued a statement that he was "seeking further legal advice in respect of the proposed production of a book apparently using police material". Would he have a case? He says he is "anxious to establish the legal foundation on which material, rightly disclosed in the context of a criminal prosecution, can subsequently be used for any other purpose that the accused person or their legal representative thinks fit". Apart from the words on the tapes uttered by the police, the copyright law certainly seems to offer that legal foundation. Or does it? West's words may be copyright of the West estate, but what about the tapes themselves? Are they police property, or not so because they, or copies of them, belong to West's lawyers as much as the police, and to that more general process, the law?

If the Chief Constable's legal advice says the Official Solicitor's position is at least contestable, Mr Wansell should begin to worry. When we spoke last week, he said he was fed up taking flak. He has a year to write the book, a year spent among transcripts and records of the foulest kind, listening, as he said, to "Fred's" voice on those hours of tapes. Seasons will go by outside Mr Wansell's Wiltshire home, and still there will be Fred, talking. Forget the money. Who would want that kind of work?

Inside story, page 17

Leading article, page 20