Leading Article: Lessons of the Shaughnessy appeal

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NOT EVEN the most ardent advocate of media freedoms can look back in comfort at the press coverage of the Alison Shaughnessy trial last year. The temptation to sensationalism was hard to resist. An attractive woman of 21 had been stabbed 54 times; Michelle Taylor, accused of her murder, had conducted a torrid affair with the victim's husband and had slept with him in a hotel bedroom the night before the wedding. No editor worth his salt could fail to see that this was a story that would sell newspapers.

But it was going too far to publish, as television and, later, national newspapers did, pictures from a video showing the victim's husband kissing his mistress at his own wedding. There were also some singularly ill-judged headlines that might have given casual readers the impression that the Taylor sisters already were proven guilty when, in fact, their trial was still in progress.

The Court of Appeal was, therefore, right last Friday when it asked the Attorney General to look at the reporting of the trial for possible contempt of court. There are clear rules on the reporting of court cases. If defendants are to have fair trials, newspapers and television stations must obey them. This newspaper, naturally, is like any other in this regard.

Yet the appeal judges did not set aside the convictions of Michelle and Lisa Taylor only because of the way newspapers wrote about the original trial. They did so also because of new evidence. Jurors in the Taylors' trial may well have been swayed by the testimony of a local doctor, who said he saw two girls who looked like the defendants running away from the house where the murder was committed. Unknown to the jurors, however, the same witness had said only a day earlier that one of the women he saw might have been black; in fact, the Taylors are white and blonde. He had also written to Barclays Bank asking after a pounds 25,000 reward offered for help in convicting the murderer.

These vital facts came to light at appeal only because defence counsel were given access in recent weeks to boxes of papers on the case that had been withheld from them - and from the prosecution - by police during the trial.

It is depressing to see such abuses continuing, after the string of recent appeals involving unfair withholding of evidence. It is particularly depressing to see such abuses in the Metropolitan Police, whose size and authority ought to make its officers particularly sensitive to the strictures of the law. Scotland Yard already has set in train an inquiry to find out what happened and why this crucial evidence was withheld.

But the authorities should not wait for the result of that investigation. The Director of Public Prosecutions should now consider carefully whether it would be right to begin an action against the police officer involved. Only stringent measures to halt abuses will send the right message to British police forces. Withholding evidence that might establish defendants' innocence is every bit as much a perversion of the course of justice as fabricating evidence that suggests their guilt.