Leading Article: Mass murderers in the mass media

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IT IS inevitable that confusion should surround the interviewing of mass murderers in prison. Beverley Allitt now follows Dennis Nilsen in being at the centre of a controversy over this point. She will appear in a documentary on Rampton mental hospital unless the High Court upholds an objection from Rampton relating to whether proper consent was obtained. The court action has already stopped a clip from the film being shown on a regional news programme.

Debate on this issue is not primarily about the law. It is about the public interest and good taste. Clearly, the public has a right to be informed about conditions in penal and mental institutions. It also has a legitimate interest in reaching a better understanding of the minds of mass murderers.

Doubts arise on vaguer questions of propriety and taste. People feel uneasy when murderers are given a platform on which to perform; when they are exploited to attract audiences rather than to purvey facts; when the aim is to titillate rather than inform; when criminals seem to be rewarded for their crime by the flattery of media attention; and when the feelings of their victims' relatives are ignored.

The right balance is difficult to find, as difficult as agreement on good taste. This newspaper is periodically accused of bad taste; sometimes, in retrospect, rightly. The documentary on Rampton has not yet been shown, so it cannot be judged. Apparently, Ms Allitt refused to answer questions about her crimes, so she appears only as a witness to conditions in Rampton, along with about 10 others. Since she has been there for a very short time and is, like others, mentally ill, it is worth questioning the value of her opinions. There must be more than a slight suspicion that she was chosen for reasons other than the information she could provide on hospital conditions.