The treatment of the former Gatwick drone suspects shows up harmful media shortcomings

It was a story with huge implications and yet very few facts – and into that vacuum were thrown this innocent couple

Jane Merrick
Tuesday 25 December 2018 14:46
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Couple arrested over the drone disruption at Gatwick says they feel 'completely violated'

With the pre-Christmas travel plans of more than 140,000 passengers disrupted, emergency meetings taking place at the highest level of government and the nation demanding to know who was responsible for the chaos, Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk didn’t stand a chance. Named by the media as the couple arrested on Friday for flying drones over Gatwick, they were portrayed by some as seemingly guilty before any charges were even brought. The Mail on Sunday invited its readers to ponder the question: “Are these the morons who ruined Christmas?”

As it turned out, Mr Gait and Ms Kirk were not. In fact, their own Christmas has been ruined by an appalling case of mistaken identity which led to their arrest. He is a former solider turned window fitter who, according to neighbours, liked to fly his drones at weekends. Their home in Crawley, five miles from Gatwick, was searched by police as photographers and camera crews gathered outside. After 36 hours in custody, they were released without charge on Sunday.

According to former officers, people are wrongly arrested all the time – we just never hear much about it. Yet in the case of Mr Gait and Ms Kirk, their case attracted so much attention because it was the first concrete thing to have happened in 48 hours of drone chaos at Gatwick. It was a story with huge implications and yet very few facts – and into that vacuum were thrown this innocent couple.

It is clear now that Sussex Police made a terrible mistake in arresting and then holding them for so long, particularly because Mr Gait had a rock-solid alibi as he had been fitting windows at the time of the drone activity. The police say that they were acting on credible information, and that the alibi provided by Gait’s boss didn’t reach them for hours due to the deluge of calls they were receiving about the incident. That may be true, but that’s little consolation for the couple.

This mistake was compounded on Sunday when a police officer raised the possibility that there may have been no drones near Gatwick at all – although this was corrected by government sources on Monday. Yet the way the media responded to the arrest of Mr Gait and Ms Kirk also demands serious scrutiny.

Yesterday, in a short statement read out by Mr Gait in front of their home, the couple said they felt “deeply distressed” and “completely violated” after their ordeal, and were receiving medical care. The way they had been portrayed by the media was disgusting, they said. Their case draws comparisons with that of Christopher Jefferies, who was wrongfully arrested by police searching for the murderer of Joanna Yeates in 2010 and subjected to sensationalist, vilifying coverage in the tabloid press. Since that case, the Leveson Inquiry, at which Mr Jefferies gave evidence, called for newspapers to act with greater restraint. As the years have passed, Leveson’s findings seem to have faded from the consciences of the press. Paul Gait and Elaine Kirk were named by the police, but the media has shamed itself over how they were portrayed.

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