POLEMIC : Caught, and tried, on camera

Showbiz-style arrests do not serve justice, argues Roy Greenslade
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The police will deny it. The reporters, photographers and camera operators won't tell (sorry, we can't reveal our sources, old boy). But it hardly takes a moment's thought to reflect on the reason the footballer Bruce Grobbelaar suffered the indignity of being arrested in front of a media throng on Tuesday morning.

Journalists were obviously given not so much a tip-off as a press release about the raid on Grobbelaar's house. How else could they have been outside the moment Operation Navajo - the investigation into soccer bribery - swung into action? Grobbelaar, we were told in newspapers the next day, looked tired. No wonder. If a person is roused from sleep unexpectedly, ordered to dress immediately, not allowed to wash and shave, and obliged to accompany police to the station "to help us with our inquiries", how else would he look? We have seen The Bill. We know the form.

But the form we should be questioning in the name of justice and fairness is whether the embarrassing matter of arrest - while innocent and not even charged - should occur in public. Why should a citizen be taken into police custody in the full glare of publicity? Why should a supposedly discreet police operation be turned into a media circus? Pertinently, we also ask: who stands to benefit most from this intrusive behaviour - the "police in co-ordinated nationwide bribes swoop", or the people pictured and filmed being escorted to cars?

It is an outrage that people can be taken into custody in a piece of theatre, scripted, directed and stage-managed by the police, who also happen to be the principal actors. It cannot be anything other than prejudicial to the arrested people, providing millions of newspaper readers and television viewerswith an image of guilt before trial or, in the case of people not yet charged, guilt without trial.

For those who indulge in the no-smoke-without-fire view of human nature (the majority), the pictures must seem like conclusive proof that the arrested person has been up to something.

Similarly, it was equally grotesque to watch Kevin Maxwell being arrested. Remember that scene outside his Chelsea home when his wife mistook the arresting officers for reporters? A good laugh. A fun story. Yet it is difficult not to conclude that it helped to foster among the public a view of Mr Maxwell which might have been unhelpful to him in obtaining a fair trial.

Then there was the case of Ruth Neave, the woman arrested in January after the death of her six-year-old son, Rikki, in Peterborough. "Murdered Rikki's mum is led away in handcuffs" said the Today headline over a picture of the woman being escorted "by a burly detective and a woman officer". Three days later, she was charged with offences against the child, but not with murder.

It is hopeless to ask for media restraint in such cases. If the press knows about a news event, it will always turn up. But why does it know? Too often in such cases, police secrecy is a contradiction in terms. Indeed, since it plainly benefits the arresting authorities, they have a vested interest in revealing their plans. They know the publicity is good for them.

But surely it is a disgraceful denial of justice for the people they want to question? And we might also ask: why the dawn raid? Why the drama? Were the Maxwell brothers, and Grob-belaar and his fellow footballers so dangerous that the police could not have asked them down to the station with a phone call? The police have a lot of questions to answer. Perhaps they would like to do so in the media.

The writer is a former editor of the `Daily Mirror'.