Brian Cathcart: The devil is in the detail

Was too much said and written about the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman? Did we need to be exposed to every horrific detail? Yes, and yes again
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The Independent Online

Seventy crime reporters and 21 "colour" writers attended court. Fifteen artists brought the trial to life for the public and in one newspaper alone the total coverage ran to 400,000 words - the equivalent of four stout novels.

No, not the Old Bailey, but Edinburgh; not the prosecution of Ian Huntley, but of a conman called Monson, accused of murdering a youth whose life he had insured for an enormous sum. It happened in 1893. Of the many public responses to the Soham case, one of the most powerful was the alarm, even revulsion, at the scale of the coverage. It seemed that hardly a word uttered in court went unprinted, and every detail that emerged, no matter how intrusive or distressing, was turned into lurid headlines. Anyone who considered the impact on the people of Soham and on the Chapman and Wells families must have wondered whether it was right. Too much was written, declared some commentators; too many pictures were printed; the reader was brought too close to these terrible events.

And yet, as the Monson trial a century ago demonstrates, coverage of this kind is nothing new. Call it fascination, call it prurience, call it - as Roy Hattersley did - "sedentary voyeurism". The truth is that the British press has written at length about murders for as long as it has existed, and for just as long the British public has willingly bought and read all it was offered.

Squalid though it can seem, it is right that it should be so. More alarming than the matters of taste or scale, as the Soham trial judge, Mr Justice Moses, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, and Maxine Carr's solicitor, Roy James, have all indicated in different ways, is the question of whether the modern style of coverage has jeopardised a fair trial. Why do we need to know so much? One reason, as Hattersley acknowledged, is that justice must be seen to be done, and it must be seen by more than the handful in the public gallery at the Old Bailey. To believe in our system we need a collective confidence that verdicts reflect the evidence, and for that we need some idea of what the evidence is.

And while it may make for uncomfortable reading, particularly when we know the victims' families may be reading the same things, we have to accept that it would be wrong to draw veils over these things, to pick out what the public should know. Murder, after all, is the ultimate human drama, perhaps the absolute extreme of emotional experience. Most of us have no direct knowledge of it but we know that it happens and that it can happen to people like us. It is natural that we should want to understand, that we should try, in some way that is safe, to get a closer view; we should not be ashamed.

Look at Soham. If there is anywhere that represents the polar opposite of the graffiti-scrawled, traffic-swamped, predatory cities most of us believe we inhabit, then it may be this village in the flat Cambridgeshire fields with its population of 10,000, its entry in the Domesday Book, its barn-like Fenland church and its high-achieving secondary school.

It is a place where people know each other. Ian Huntley knew Holly Wells's father, Kevin. Jessica Chapman's mother, Sharon, knew Maxine Carr. The Wellses and Chapmans knew each other, too. It was also a place where 10-year-olds had the run of the village on a summer's evening and where passers-by thought nothing of girls out on their own after 6pm, except perhaps to remark: "Look, two little Beckhams." To many city-dwellers this will still seem an enviably relaxed world.

How the little Beckhams were plucked from this cosy setting and how their bodies came to be found in a country ditch 12 days later were matters not only for the justice system but also of legitimate public concern. It was something we needed to understand so far as we could, and here the details count. That they were seen at 6.32 or 6.33 matters. That Jessica's mobile was switched off at 6.46 matters. That they did not know Huntley and that Carr, whom they did know, was away at the time, matters. That one or both of the girls definitely went upstairs matters. That no trace of their blood was found in the house, and no trace of semen on their shredded, part-burned clothes matters.

It matters, too, that Huntley wore bin bags on his feet when he disposed of the bodies. And it matters that, after carrying out his frenzied spring-clean and then taking a shower that left him with wet hair, he was seen out and about around 10.30pm. They are details, and sometimes awful ones, but they help us to form our own judgement of what happened at 5 College Close that evening, a judgement which a verdict of one word can never provide. So far as possible we want to know - and it is not merely curiosity but also compassion that drives us - what happened to Holly and Jessica, and it is the details that guide us.

We are all interested parties here. Crimes are committed against victims, yes, but they are also, in our system, committed against society as a whole, and justice is not something to be settled in the exclusive interest of victims and their families. It is good for editors to be reminded of the sensitivities of bereaved families, but uncomfortable as it may seem, the interest of the general public has to come first, even if a by-product is that more newspapers are sold. None of this is to say that the reporting was all high-minded or that there were no breaches of good taste, but drawing lines in such matters is never easy and, in Britain, usually a waste of time.

There are already some lines here and they are controversial enough, particularly after Soham. Easy though it was to forget while reading the Soham coverage, legal restraints on the media in crime reporting are tight. The law over contempt of court effectively bans any reporting of a crime between the charging of a suspect and the verdict at his or her trial, beyond what is said in court. The aim is to ensure, so far as possible, that juries reach verdicts on the basis of hard evidence they have heard at first hand, rather than what they have read in the papers or picked up from broadcast news. It is a good law but it has few friends in the media, and in high-profile trials is often tested to, and even beyond, the limit.

If, as seems likely in the light of some of the pre-trial Soham reporting, the Attorney General decides to enforce it more vigorously than in the recent past, we should welcome it. There is no contradiction here. We need, and are entitled, to know the details about serious crime, but it need not be at the price of jailing innocent people more often than we already do.

Brian Cathcart is the author of 'The Case of Stephen Lawrence' and 'Jill Dando: Her Life and Death'