The Today programme revisited

Friday, 6 February 2004;
revised 9 February

ON THURSDAY MORNING the 6.5 million people who regularly tune into BBC Radio 4's Today programme were left in little doubt that there had been a dramatic development within the criminal justice system. The importance of this development seemed clear from the fact that it was the second  item in the news bulletins which were broadcast periodically throughout the programme.

Those who listened to these bulletins learned that the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) was re-opening as many as 120 cases involving care workers who had been convicted as a result of police trawling operations. It was going to re-examine these cases in order to establish whether or not the convictions were safe.

Working together with a group of solicitors, the
Historical Abuse Appeal Panel, the CCRC was apparently taking an unprecedented initiative. The impression was given that it was the major protagonist in a formal re-examination of all such convictions which it would be reviewing rather in the manner that convictions arising from the expert evidence of Sir Roy Meadow are currently being scrutinised. One lawyer was quoted as saying that it was extremely unusual for the CCRC to be 'so pro-active'.

For the families and friends of many innocent former care workers who have been wrongly convicted, this news must have come as a tremendous relief.  For the small number of politicians who have shown an interest in the problem of police trawling, and have expressed concern about its dangers, the news will have been most welcome. And for many chief constables and prosecutors it may well have been worrying. 

Such reactions could only be reinforced by a story later that day in the Evening Standard. The story, by Patrick Sawer, began: 'Carers and teachers who have consistently proclaimed their innocence of child abuse allegations had their hopes lifted today with the announcement of a review of more than 100 cases.' The story, which went on to draw a parallel with the cot death cases involving Sir Roy Meadow, was clearly based on that morning's Today programme report and would in its turn have been read by millions of Londoners.

However, a week after the Today programme had been severely criticised by Lord Hutton for inaccurate journalism, there was only one problem with its seemingly authoritative news item.

It was not true.

Reactions at the CCRC, which immediately telephoned Today in an attempt to correct the story, varied. One CCRC member of staff described the suggestion that they had instituted an inquiry as 'complete nonsense'. Another described the BBC headline as 'poetic licence journalism'.

The second of these reactions is probably the fairer of the two in that it suggests that there was at least a grain of truth in the BBC's claim.

The CCRC certainly had some involvement in helping the Today programme, and in particular its home affairs correspondent Danny Shaw, put together an item about police trawling. The focus of the item was the Anver Sheikh appeal and the co-operation between the CCRC and the Historic Abuse Appeals Panel set up by Sheikh's solicitor Mark Newby. This consisted in a professed willingness on both sides to help each other and to exchange information about links between cases. The CCRC had said to the BBC, quite accurately, that this kind of co-ooperation was 'unprecedented'. One of its officials had also apparently spoken of an intention to 'investigate' the cases in question.

It may well have been such comments which led the Today programme to the view that it would be a good idea to ramp the story up by creating a news headline to go with it. Since the Historic Abuse Appeals Panel had already collected some 120 cases, and since the CCRC was co-operating with the panel, somebody seems to have drawn the inference that all these cases were being formally re-opened.

This inference was untrue.  In due course the CCRC might examine and refer to the Court of Appeal some of the cases collected by the Historic Abuse Appeals Panel, just as they might refer any other case which was brought to them by an individual solicitor. But there was never any question of there being an automatic re-opening of all the cases. Perhaps because it made Today's journalism seem much more exciting and agenda-setting than it might otherwise have appeared, however, the incorrect inference was actually inserted into the main news bulletin in order to become its second item.

The idea that the CCRC was reopening 120 'historical abuse' cases was thus not only news to the nation; it was news to the CCRC. It may well be the case that this number of care home cases ought to be re-examined. Concerned lawyers have long expressed the view that upwards of 100 care workers may have been wrongly convicted as a result of such methods. As the Today programme reported, their concerns were broadly endorsed by the 2002 Home Affairs Committee inquiry which expressed the view that police methods of investigation had brought about 'a new genre of miscarriages of justice'.

The cases now being dealt with by the Historic Abuse Appeals Panel, however, are varied in their nature. As has already been noted in an earlier article here, many of the 120 cases notified to the HAAP are family rather than care home cases. Of the 50 or so which are the product of police trawling, some have yet to come to trial and others, where convictions have been obtained, have not yet been through the appeal process and would therefore be ineligible for any examination by the CCRC. Currently there are only about 25 care home cases which might be suitable for the CCRC to add to the 20 or so it is already examining.  Any 're-opening' of these 25 cases, however, lies in the future. As in all cases which are investigated by the CCRC, this will only happen if there are new grounds on which to base a second appeal.

All this the Today programme could easily have found out had it asked the right questions. It did not do so, and it would appear that whoever wrote the news story (which was presumably not Danny Shaw, whose piece was largely accurate) was more concerned with promoting one of Today's own reports, than ensuring that the headline used in order to do this was strictly accurate.

That this should have happened within a week or so of the publication of the Hutton report, which was itself occasioned by a Today programme reporter failing to check his facts and drawing unwarranted inferences, is surprising. Nobody would suggest that the two instances of lax journalism are of the same order of seriousness.  But perhaps this further instance of careless journalism provides an example of how Lord Hutton, by producing such a one-sided report, has actually made it difficult for BBC journalists to respond positively to criticisms of the Today  programme which, in a number of cases at least, are actually well-founded.

From the point of view of those campaigning to get more publicity for the injustices which trawling has led to, the BBC's untrue news item may actually have had - in the short term at least - a positive effect. The immediate result was a rash of stories in Friday's national press which might not otherwise have appeared with such prominence. But you can cry 'wolf' only so often. The next time there is a real story to report, the reaction of national newspaper journalists might well be more cautious. As it was, the only reason that the reports which appeared were generally accurate was that the CCRC's press officer, Boris Worrall, spent most of Thursday morning in conversation with journalists in an effort to undo the effects of the misinformation broadcast by the BBC (and echoed by the Evening Standard). This did not stop the news editor of one national newspaper from rebuking a journalist, who had filed an accurate report, for supposedly missing the 'real' story.

That in this instance it was the Today programme which spread misleading information seems particularly unfortunate given that the line taken by Danny Shaw's report was generally a helpful one. Shaw's report compared very favourably with some earlier Today reports on related subjects. Following an agenda of slipshod 'trouble-making' journalism which was partly set for it by its former editor Rod Liddle, Today has in the past shown too little regard for the innocent victims of paeodophile witch-hunts and far too much interest in intensifying a witch-hunting atmosphere - particularly in relation to the Catholic church. The one-sided reports filed by former Radio 5 journalist Angus Stickler, who was reportedly recruited to the Today programme by Liddle 'to cause trouble for the Roman Catholic church' provide an example of this unfortunate tendency.

Given this legacy of bad reporting on one of the most difficult and sensitive issues there is, the fact that Today should now have turned its attention to the many miscarriages of justice which have resulted from police trawling is in itself to be welcomed. What is now needed, is more real journalism in which real investigative resources are deployed over a period of weeks - and if necessary months - in order uncover what is really happening in police trawling operations and the miscarriages of justice which result from them.

If the BBC were to engage in this kind of journalism then the topic of police trawling would not be the second item on its news bulletins. It would be the first. And it would deserve to be.

Richard Webster, 200


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