Leading Article: Monsters in our midst

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WHETHER Dennis Nilsen, the convicted serial killer, should appear on television raises difficult issues. The Home Office takes the view that his appearance would upset the families of his victims and pander to his own desire for notoriety. It has won a temporary injunction to stop the broadcast of an interview which, it says, was granted for research purposes, not for public television. Its general policy is not to allow long-serving prisoners access to the media.

Against this it can be argued that it is no part of Nilsen's punishment to be deprived of his right of free speech under the European Convention of Human Rights. He has already been deprived of his physical liberty for reasons of punishment and public safety. In the United States, prisoners enjoy freedom of speech as a constitutional right. This is taken to include access to the media. In Britain, which lacks a Bill of Rights, the

decision is in the arbitrary hands of the Home Office, which can invent its own criteria. It certainly seems odd for the Home Office to decide whether families of victims would be upset. That is for the families themselves to decide. They can avoid viewing if they wish.

The broader implications of giving a platform to serial killers are more complex. Certain types of sick people are encouraged to kill by their desire for publicity, so Nilsen's appearance might make emulation more likely. But every captured killer gets plenty of publicity in court, so the uncertain chance of further appearances would not weigh greatly in the balance.

Then there is the question of public interest. Much of it may be prurient but there is also a justified interest in knowing more about the monsters in our midst. One reason is the practical value of learning how best to avoid rearing psychopaths, how to spot them and what to do if threatened by one. The other is a natural desire to inquire more deeply into the darker regions of human nature which we all share. Up to a point this interest can be met by professional researchers passing on the fruits of their labours, but it would be dangerous to argue that the public should be fed only the processed fruits of research and denied first-hand sight of the material. The chilling discovery that psychopaths can look and behave like ordinary people is not one from which the public needs protection.

There would be obvious dangers in granting the media free access to every prisoner in the country, mentally disturbed and otherwise. It would open up wide scope for irresponsible and titillating programmes and endless protestations of innocence by prisoners. But this is a matter of public taste, little different from other such matters that are left to the media and those that regulate them. Probably public interest would wane very quickly. In any case, it is difficult to see why the Home Office should be left to decide on an issue involving such a complex mixture of ethics, taste, scientific research and human rights.