Sunday, 2 December 2012

Biased reporting

With a loud cry Jesus died. The curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
(Mark 15:37-38)

Jesus drank the wine and said, "It is finished!" Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

It was about twelve o'clock when the sun stopped shining and darkness covered the whole country until three o'clock; and the curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two. (SEE 23:44) Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Father! In your hands I place my spirit!" He said this and died.
(Luke 23:44-46)

Jesus again gave a loud cry and breathed his last. Then the curtain hanging in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split apart, the graves broke open, and many of God's people who had died were raised to life. They left the graves, and after Jesus rose from death, they went into the Holy City, where many people saw them. (Matthew 27:50-53)

The various gospel writings differ in the account of Jesus death. Mark, considered the earliest, has the plainest version, but John - who introduces wine, is also quite terse. Luke has what appears to be an eclipse occurring, while Matthew has an earthquake, and just to top that - people coming back to life. It is an example of how different narratives get written, according to different agendas of the writing. Yet at the heart of it is a core truth - that Jesus died on a cross, around which other events are placed, and may even be the result of creative imagination. There doesn't appear to any mention of dead people who have come back to life at the crucifixion in other early Christian writings. Perhaps it is an early example of how press reports can be exaggerated.

Which brings me to the Leverson report, where the JEP was making a lot of heat about bad reporting regarding Haut de La Garenne, where there was reporting that "the police had evidence that children had been killed and buried in the ruins of an old children's home on the isle of Jersey", and they appear to quote Nick Davies commenting that "The evidence for the truth of that proposition is screaming its falsehood."

But did it at the time? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, as I'm sure Nick Davies will be the first to agree. This is what Davies wrote about the News of the World and voicemail messages on Millie Dowler's mobile phone:

"The messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance in order to free up space for more messages. As a result, friends and relatives of Milly concluded wrongly that she might still be alive."

And here is a transcript of Davies on Newsnight:

Paxman: 'This central allegation, the most scandalous perhaps of the lot, that a murdered girl's voicemails were deleted by the News of the World which you claimed to be a fact wasn't a fact was it?"
Davies: 'No you're getting it all wrong here. The story that we published in July was squarely based on all of the evidence available and was correct in saying that her voicemail had been deleted and it remains the case that NI are not denying that News of the World journalists may have been responsible for those deletions."
Paxman: 'You say in the copy that the messages were deleted by journalists in the first few days after Milly's disappearance. You don't know that."
Davies: 'You're getting the problem slightly wrong, you've misunderstood it. The problem is whether or not they were responsible for deleting the particular messages which caused the friends and family to have false hope. That is now in doubt."
Paxman: 'Do you know for a fact what you state as fact in this article?"
Davies: 'Everybody who was involved in this story accepted that it was true."
Paxman: 'You're not answering."
Davies: 'You've asked the wrong questions."
Paxman: 'Oh, I am so sorry."
Davies: 'You've misunderstood the problem"
Paxman: 'This is the key question. Was it true?"
Davies: "Everybody involved in that story believed it was true. The day after I published that story I sat down for two hours with Glenn Mulcare, the private investigator at the centre of this thing, and subsequently he issued an apology and he didn't disagree with a single word¦"
Paxman: 'But you state it as a fact, you don't say it was a police belief."
Davies: 'Everybody involved in that story accepted that that story was true and continued to accept until four months later evidence that was not available, to everybody's surprise, showed that one element of that story was now in doubt"
Paxman: 'You don't report it as a belief you report it as fact."
Davies: 'And everyone accepted that it was true, the police accepted it in London and Surrey, the private investigator, News International - nobody disputed a word of that story. Nobody dissented from it. In retrospect it was in doubt."

And in retrospect, Nick Davies himself checked some of the reporting of Haut de La Garenne, when lurid stories about mass murder were coming to the fore.

"All this about six more bodies," Harper told me. "We never said that. That was certainly inaccurate and out of proportion." And now, nine weeks after the finding of the skull fragment, police have nearly completed a search of eight sites to which Eddie reacted. Three were empty. A fourth appears to be empty, though there is a little digging still to go. In the remaining four, police have found: two human milk teeth; some bone fragments, animal or human; five bloodstained items; and a bath with tiny spots of blood. All are being tested. None of these, as Harper insists, is necessarily sinister. "It's a children's home. Kids lose teeth. They get cut. On the other hand, these items may be important."(2)

Davies noted of the original press briefing:

Harper had allowed himself one compromise in his strategy of openness: he would not release details that might be picked up from a newspaper and recycled by a future witness. For this reason, he chose in the press release to refer with deliberate vagueness to the discovery of "what appears to be partial remains of a child". That opened the door to Fleet Street's imagination. (2)

The Times reported that "Jersey police have discovered the partial remains of at least five children at Haut de la Garenne, the former children's home at the centre of the island's child abuse investigation. " But Lenny Harper's actual statement, reported in the same article, tells quite a different story: "At the end of the day there may not be the evidence there to mount a homicide inquiry and an attempt to bring anybody to justice for whatever crimes took place there," he said. Mr Harper said: "We were pinning our hopes on the process of carbon dating. The latest information we're getting is that for the period we're looking at, it's not going to be possible to give us an exact time of death. The indications are that if the results come back the same way as they have now it is obvious there won't be a homicide inquiry."

And it is of course a pretty standard procedure with the police, to hold back data, so that any other data coming forward might corroborate it. It is well known that although information from informants can quickly give direction to an investigation, any such information must be corroborated using other resources. Corroboration reduces the likelihood that informants will have to testify in court, and ensures that the information obtained is reliable. Likewise, with forensic discoveries, holding back part of the information provides a check against people who might come forward with supposedly confirmatory accounts, which can be proven false.

And of course Harper was also acting on the evidence given to him by his experts regarding both the material - the fragment - and its potential history, just as much as Davies did in the phone hacking story -"'Everybody involved in that story accepted that that story was true and continued to accept until four months later evidence that was not available, to everybody's surprise, showed that one element of that story was now in doubt". We cannot judge in hindsight, and neither should Nick Davies or the JEP. We have to take ourselves back to see how the situation appeared before further evidence came to light.

In fact, as Davies himself reported, the record was then set straight - by Harper himself, even before any further examination had cast doubt on it being a bone fragment at all.

Jersey police sent the bone fragment off to be examined and, seven weeks later, on April 18, they put out a press release which explained that their forensic archaeologist had now determined that the bone fragment had been on the site since before the 1940s, possibly since Victorian times. This meant that it could not possibly be anything to do with the allegations of abuse that Harper was investigating, which date from the late 1950s. (2)

So before all the claims about coconut were made, the bone fragment was already out of the scope of the investigation, and publically so. But this didn't suit the narrative which said that Lenny Harper had said that it was a bone fragment, and not a piece of coconut, and had decided to follow his own "maverick cop" agenda.

What is clear is that press reporting was beyond the scope of recall by Lenny or any other members of the team, as Nick Davies himself points out:

Harper tried to rein in the more feral coverage. When he heard during the first week that CNN and Sky were reporting the discovery of the bodies of two children, he immediately spoke to a Sky reporter who went live with his denial (though Harper says CNN carried on running it). He tried to make clear that they had allegations of the unexplained disappearance of children, two of whom have since been found alive and well, and, as the official transcript of a press briefing records, he did tell reporters: "We have no allegations that anyone died or was murdered here." That didn't make the news. (2)

It seems that attempts were made to curtail the information going to the press by William Bailhache, then Attorney-General, it certainly appears that a decision was made in late 2008 to hold another press conference with the express purpose of providing an alternative narrative to scotch all the press reports.

What did happen after the press conference was that the one member of the investigation still in a position of authority, Graham Power, was suspended by Deputy Andrew Lewis in a manner that would be heavily criticised - the same Andrew Lewis, it appears, who is now being given airtime to talk about his time in office, but without a Paxman asking difficult questions.

Unfortunately, truth appears to have been a casualty of that press conference, as I recall hearing in a sermon, of all places, that "now we know the truth" - in other words, nothing happened. That was the dominant narrative now coming to the fore. Nothing happened.

Except that, of course, it did. People were arrested, charged, and successfully prosecuted for child abuse at Haut de La Garenne. The danger of replacing one narrative with another is that it muddies everything, and it becomes difficult to see the truth. Some clarity is very important because it is probable certain that with children from Haut de La Garenne, or elsewhere in Jersey, the late Jimmy Saville abused children over here. Allegations of abuse were made before Saville's death,  but when he was protected by an aura of celebrity fame that made any accusations unlikely to succeed such a high evidential bar - and in Jersey, unlike the UK or Europe, the judge would also have to brief the jury against the accuser, with no discretion allowed. That law, on which Frank Walker's Council of Ministers refused to budge, and which Wendy Kinnard decided to resign on a matter of principle, is still in place.

That's an important truth that might be forgotten by the JEP and politicians jumping on the Leverson bandwagon.



Rob Kent said...

Typo: It's 'Leveson' not 'Leverson'.

James said...

in Jersey, unlike the UK or Europe, the judge would also have to brief the jury against the accuser, with no discretion allowed.

Tony, please can you post us chapter and verse on which law requires this?

TonyTheProf said...

have since found out that the changes have been introduced recently:

The law was lodged by the Chief Minister acting on the recommendation of the Legislation Advisory Panel in 2011 and seems have been passed and come into effect on March 2012.


The notes on the law state:

"The Bailiff or a Commissioner in the Royal Court, in a case where evidence has been given by any of the above, must always, when summing up to a jury, warn them that it is dangerous to convict if that evidence has not been corroborated in some way.

The Jersey Law Commission has recommended abolishing this automatic requirement. Instead, in these cases, the position would be as in all other trials, i.e. the Bailiff or Commissioner would required to use his or her discretion, when summing up to the jury, as to whether or not they needed to be warned to treat any particular evidence with caution."

This is the point on which Wendy Kinnard resigned, as back in 2008, the Council of Ministers decided such a change was not needed.

TonyTheProf said...

Here's the original JEP article

On 21 October she made a statement to the States that she was stepping down ‘on a point of moral conscience and principle’. She said at the time that her decision to go was based on a refusal by the Council of Ministers to discuss a change in the way that judges instructed juries over uncorroborated evidence.