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Grayson Perry: The rise and fall of Default Man

How did the straight, white, middle-class Default Man take control of our society – and how can he be dethroned?

Attack of the clones: Default Man is so entrenched in society that he is “like a Death Star hiding behind the moon”. Artwork by Grayson Perry

Grayson Perry's guest-edited issue of the New Statesman is on sale on Thursday 9 October. Visit newstatesman.com/subscribe to get a copy

Paddle your canoe up the River Thames and you will come round the bend and see a forest of huge totems jutting into the sky. Great shiny monoliths in various phallic shapes, they are the wondrous cultural artefacts of a remarkable tribe. We all know someone from this powerful tribe but we very rarely, if ever, ascribe their power to the fact that they have a particular tribal identity.

I think this tribe, a small minority of our native population, needs closer examination. In the UK, its members probably make up about 10 per cent of the population (see infographic below); globally, probably less than 1 per cent. In a phrase used more often in association with Operation Yewtree, they are among us and hide in plain sight.

They dominate the upper echelons of our society, imposing, unconsciously or otherwise, their values and preferences on the rest of the population. With their colourful textile phalluses hanging round their necks, they make up an overwhelming majority in government, in boardrooms and also in the media.

They are, of course, white, middle-class, heterosexual men, usually middle-aged. And every component of that description has historically played a part in making this tribe a group that punches far, far above its weight. I have struggled to find a name for this identity that will trip off the tongue, or that doesn’t clutter the page with unpronounceable acronyms such as WMCMAHM. “The White Blob” was a strong contender but in the end I opted to call him Default Man. I like the word “default”, for not only does it mean “the result of not making an active choice”, but two of its synonyms are “failure to pay” and “evasion”, which seems incredibly appropriate, considering the group I wish to talk about.

Today, in politically correct 21st-century Britain, you might think things would have changed but somehow the Great White Male has thrived and continues to colonise the high-status, high-earning, high-power roles (93 per cent of executive directors in the UK are white men; 77 per cent of parliament is male). The Great White Male’s combination of good education, manners, charm, confidence and sexual attractiveness (or “money”, as I like to call it) means he has a strong grip on the keys to power. Of course, the main reason he has those qualities in the first place is what he is, not what he has achieved. John Scalzi, in his blog Whatever, thought that being a straight white male was like playing the computer game called Life with the difficulty setting on “Easy”. If you are a Default Man you look like power.

I must confess that I qualify in many ways to be a Default Man myself but I feel that by coming from a working-class background and being an artist and a transvestite, I have enough cultural distance from the towers of power. I have space to turn round and get a fairly good look at the edifice.

In the course of making my documentary series about identity, Who Are You?, for Channel 4, the identity I found hardest to talk about, the most elusive, was Default Man’s. Somehow, his world-view, his take on society, now so overlaps with the dominant narrative that it is like a Death Star hiding behind the moon. We cannot unpick his thoughts and feelings from the “proper, right-thinking” attitudes of our society. It is like in the past, when people who spoke in cut-glass, RP, BBC tones would insist they did not have an accent, only northerners and poor people had one of those. We live and breathe in a Default Male world: no wonder he succeeds, for much of our society operates on his terms.

Chris Huhne (60, Westminster, PPE Mag­dalen, self-destructively heterosexual), the Default Man we chose to interview for our series, pooh-poohed any suggestion when asked if he benefited from membership or if he represented this group. Lone Default Man will never admit to, or be fully aware of, the tribal advantages of his identity. They are, naturally, full subscribers to that glorious capitalist project, they are individuals!

This adherence to being individuals is the nub of the matter. Being “individual” means that if they achieve something good, it is down to their own efforts. They got the job because they are brilliant, not because they are a Default Man, and they are also presumed more competent by other Default Men. If they do something bad it is also down to the individual and not to do with their gender, race or class. If a Default Man commits a crime it is not because fraud or sexual harassment, say, are endemic in his tribe (coughs), it is because he is a wrong ’un. If a Default Man gets emotional it is because he is a “passionate” individual, whereas if he were a woman it would often be blamed on her sex.

When we talk of identity, we often think of groups such as black Muslim lesbians in wheelchairs. This is because identity only seems to become an issue when it is challenged or under threat. Our classic Default Man is rarely under existential threat; consequently, his identity remains unexamined. It ambles along blithely, never having to stand up for its rights or to defend its homeland.

When talking about identity groups, the word “community” often crops up. The working class, gay people, black people or Muslims are always represented by a “community leader”. We rarely, if ever, hear of the white middle-class community. “Communities” are defined in the eye of Default Man. Community seems to be a euphemism for the vulnerable lower orders. Community is “other”. Communities usually seem to be embattled, separate from society. “Society” is what Default Man belongs to.

In news stories such as the alleged “Trojan Horse” plot in Birmingham schools and the recent child-abuse scandal in Rotherham, the central involvement of an ethnic or faith “community” skews the attitudes of police, social services and the media. The Muslim or Pakistani heritage of those accused becomes the focus. I’m not saying that faith and ethnic groups don’t have their particular problems but the recipe for such trouble is made up of more than one spicy, foreign ingredient. I would say it involves more than a few handfuls of common-or-garden education/class issues, poor mental health and, of course, the essential ingredient in nearly all nasty or violent problems, men. Yeah, men – bit like them Default Men but without suits on.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, published in 1975, Laura Mulvey coined the term “the male gaze”. She was writing about how the gaze of the movie camera reflected the heterosexual male viewpoint of the directors (a viewpoint very much still with us, considering that only 9 per cent of the top 250 Hollywood films in 2012 were directed by women and only 2 per cent of the cinematographers were female).

The Default Male gaze does not just dominate cinema, it looks down on society like the eye on Sauron’s tower in The Lord of the Rings. Every other identity group is “othered” by it. It is the gaze of the expensively nondescript corporate leader watching consumers adorn themselves with his company’s products the better to get his attention.

Default Man feels he is the reference point from which all other values and cultures are judged. Default Man is the zero longitude of identities.

He has forged a society very much in his own image, to the point where now much of what other groups think and feel is the same. They take on the attitudes of Default Man because they are the attitudes of our elders, our education, our government, our media. If Default Men approve of something it must be good, and if they disapprove it must be bad, so people end up hating themselves, because their internalised Default Man is berating them for being female, gay, black, silly or wild.

I often hear women approvingly describe themselves or other women as feisty. Feisty, I feel, has sexist implications, as if standing up for yourself was exceptional in a woman. It sounds like a word that a raffish Lothario would use about a difficult conquest.

I once gave a talk on kinky sex and during the questions afterwards a gay woman floated an interesting thought: “Is the legalising of gay marriage an attempt to neutralise the otherness of homosexuals?” she asked. Was the subversive alternative being neutered by allowing gays to marry and ape a hetero lifestyle? Many gay people might have enjoyed their dangerous outsider status. Had Default Man implanted a desire to be just like him?

Is the fact that we think like Default Man the reason why a black female Doctor Who has not happened, that it might seem “wrong” or clunky? In my experience, when I go to the doctor I am more likely to see a non-white woman than a Default Man.

It is difficult to tweezer out the effect of Default Man on our culture, so ingrained is it after centuries of their rules. A friend was once on a flight from Egypt. As it came in to land at Heathrow he looked down at the rows of mock-Tudor stockbroker-belt houses in west London. Pointing them out, he said to the Egyptian man sitting next to him: “Oh well, back to boring old England.” The Egyptian replied, “Ah, but to me this is very exotic.” And he was right. To much of the world the Default Englishman is a funny foreign folk icon, with his bowler hat, his Savile Row suit and Hugh Grant accent, living like Reggie Perrin in one of those polite suburban semis. All the same, his tribal costume and rituals have probably clothed and informed the global power elite more than any other culture. Leaders wear his clothes, talk his language and subscribe to some version of his model of how society “should be”.

When I was at art college in the late Seventies/early Eighties, one of the slogans the feminists used was: “Objectivity is Male Subjectivity.” This brilliantly encapsulates how male power nestles in our very language, exerting influence at the most fundamental level. Men, especially Default Men, have put forward their biased, highly emotional views as somehow “rational”, more considered, more “calm down, dear”. Women and “exotic” minorities are framed as “passionate” or “emotional” as if they, the Default Men, had this unique ability to somehow look round the side of that most interior lens, the lens that is always distorted by our feelings. Default Man somehow had a dispassionate, empirical, objective vision of the world as a birthright, and everyone else was at the mercy of turbulent, uncontrolled feelings. That, of course, explained why the “others” often held views that were at such odds with their supposedly cool, analytic vision of the world.

Recently, footage of the UN spokesman Chris Gunness breaking down in tears as he spoke of the horrors occurring in Gaza went viral. It was newsworthy because reporters and such spokespeople are supposed to be dispassionate and impartial. To show such feelings was to be “unprofessional”. And lo! The inherited mental health issues of Default Man are cast as a necessity for serious employment.

I think Default Man should be made aware of the costs and increasing obsolescence of this trait, celebrated as “a stiff upper lip”. This habit of denying, recasting or suppressing emotion may give him the veneer of “professionalism” but, as David Hume put it: “Reason is a slave of the passions.” To be unaware of or unwilling to examine feelings means those feelings have free rein to influence behaviour unconsciously. Unchecked, they can motivate Default Man covertly, unacknowledged, often wreaking havoc. Even if rooted in long-past events in the deep unconscious, these emotions still fester, churning in the dark at the bottom of the well. Who knows what unconscious, screwed-up “personal journeys” are being played out on the nation by emotionally illiterate Default Men?

Being male and middle class and being from a generation that still valued the stiff upper lip means our Default Man is an ideal candidate for low emotional awareness. He sits in a gender/ class/age nexus marked “Unexploded Emotional Time Bomb”.

These people have been in charge of our world for a long time.

Things may be changing.
 

****
 

Women are often stereotyped as the emotional ones, and men as rational. But, after the 2008 crash, the picture looked different, as Hanna Rosin wrote in an article in the Atlantic titled “The End of Men”:

Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and level-headed.

Over the centuries, empirical, clear thinking has become branded with the image of Default Men. They were the ones granted the opportunity, the education, the leisure, the power to put their thoughts out into the world. In people’s minds, what do professors look like? What do judges look like? What do leaders look like? The very aesthetic of seriousness has been monopolised by Default Man. Practically every person on the globe who wants to be taken seriously in politics, business and the media dresses up in some way like a Default Man, in a grey, western, two-piece business suit. Not for nothing is it referred to as “power dressing”. We’ve all seen those photo ops of world leaders: colour and pattern shriek out as anachronistic. Consequently, many women have adopted this armour of the unremarkable. Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in the world, wears a predictable unfussy, feminised version of the male look. Hillary Clinton has adopted a similar style. Some businesswomen describe this need to tone down their feminine appearance as “taking on the third gender”.

Peter Jones on Dragons’ Den was once referred to as “eccentric” for wearing brightly coloured stripy socks. So rigid is the Default Man look that men’s suit fashions pivot on tiny changes of detail at a glacial pace. US politicians wear such a narrow version of the Default Man look that you rarely see one wearing a tie that is not plain or striped.

Suits you, sir: Grayson Perry as Default Man.
Photo: Kalpesh Lathigra/New Statesman

One tactic that men use to disguise their subjectively restricted clothing choices is the justification of spurious function. As if they need a watch that splits lap times and works 300 feet underwater, or a Himalayan mountaineer’s jacket for a walk in the park. The rufty-tufty army/hunter camouflage pattern is now to boys as pink is to girls. Curiously, I think the real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart but as camouflage. A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable “workmen”. The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity. Many office workers loathe dress-down Fridays because they can no longer hide behind a suit. They might have to expose something of their messy selves through their “casual” clothes. Modern, overprofessionalised politicians, having spent too long in the besuited tribal compound, find casual dress very difficult to get right convincingly. David Cameron, while ruining Converse basketball shoes for the rest of us, never seemed to me as if he belonged in a pair.

When I am out and about in an eye-catching frock, men often remark to me, “Oh, I wish I could dress like you and did not have to wear a boring suit.” Have to! The male role is heavily policed from birth, by parents, peers and bosses. Politicians in particular are harshly kept in line by a media that seems to uphold more bizarrely rigid standards of conformity than those held by any citizen. Each component of the Default Male role – his gender, his class, his age and his sexuality – confines him to an ever narrower set of behaviours, until riding a bicycle or growing a beard, having messy hair or enjoying a pint are seen as ker-azy eccentricity. The fashionable members’ club Shoreditch House, the kind of place where “creatives” with two iPhones and three bicycles hang out, has a “No Suits” rule. How much of this is a pseudo-rebellious pose and how much is in recognition of the pernicious effect of the overgrown schoolboy’s uniform, I do not know.

I dwell on the suit because I feel it exemplifies how the upholders of Default Male values hide in plain sight. Imagine if, by democratic decree, the business suit was banned, like certain items of Islamic dress have been banned in some countries. Default Men would flounder and complain that they were not being treated with “respect”.

The most pervasive aspect of the Default Man identity is that it masquerades very efficiently as “normal” – and “normal”, along with “natural”, is a dangerous word, often at the root of hateful prejudice. As Sherrie Bourg Carter, author of High-Octane Women, writes:

Women in today’s workforce . . . are experiencing a much more camouflaged foe – second-generation gender biases . . . “work cultures and practices that appear neutral and natural on their face”, yet they reflect masculine values and life situations of men.

Personally, working in the arts, I do not often encounter Default Man en masse, but when I do it is a shock. I occasionally get invited to formal dinners in the City of London and on arrival, I am met, in my lurid cocktail dress, with a sea of dinner jackets; perhaps harshly, my expectations of a satisfying conversation drop. I feel rude mentioning the black-clad elephant in the room. I sense that I am the anthropologist allowed in to the tribal ritual.

Of course, this weird minority, these curiously dominant white males, are anything but normal. “Normal,” as Carl Jung said, “is the ideal aim for the unsuccessful.” They like to keep their abnormal power low-key: the higher the power, the duller the suit and tie, a Mercedes rather than a Rolls, just another old man chatting casually to prime ministers at the wedding of a tabloid editor.

Revolution is happening. I am loath to use the R word because bearded young men usually characterise it as sudden and violent. But that is just another unhelpful cliché. I feel real revolutions happen thoughtfully in peacetime. A move away from the dominance of Default Man is happening, but way too slowly. Such changes in society seem to happen at a pace set by incremental shifts in the animal spirits of the population. I have heard many of the “rational” (ie, male) arguments against quotas and positive discrimination but I feel it is a necessary fudge to enable just change to happen in the foreseeable future. At the present rate of change it will take more than a hundred years before the UK parliament is 50 per cent female.

The outcry against positive discrimination is the wail of someone who is having their privilege taken away. For talented black, female and working-class people to take their just place in the limited seats of power, some of those Default Men are going to have to give up their seats.

Perhaps Default Man needs to step down from some of his most celebrated roles. I’d happily watch a gay black James Bond and an all-female Top Gear, QI or Have I Got News for You. Jeremy Paxman should have been replaced by a woman on Newsnight. More importantly, we need a quota of MPs who (shock) have not been to university but have worked on the shop floor of key industries; have had life experiences that reflect their constituents’; who actually represent the country rather than just a narrow idea of what a politician looks like. The ridiculousness of objections to quotas would become clear if you were to suggest that, instead of calling it affirmative action, we adopted “Proportionate Default Man Quotas” for government and business. We are wasting talent. Women make up a majority of graduates in such relevant fields as law.

Default Man seems to be the embodiment of George Bernard Shaw’s unreasonable man: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to make the world adapt to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

Default Man’s days may be numbered; a lot of his habits are seen at best as old-fashioned or quaint and at worst as redundant, dangerous or criminal. He carries a raft of unhelpful habits and attitudes gifted to him from history – adrenalin addiction, a need for certainty, snobbery, emotional constipation and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement – which have often proved disastrous for society and can also stop poor Default Man from leading a fulfilling life.

Earlier this year, at the Being A Man festival at the Southbank Centre in London, I gave a talk on masculinity called: “Men, Sit Down for your Rights!”. A jokey title, yes, but one making a serious point: that perhaps, if men were to loosen their grip on power, there might be some benefits for them. The straitjacket of the Default Man identity is not necessarily one happily donned by all members of the tribe: many struggle with the bad fit of being leader, provider, status hunter, sexual predator, respectable and dignified symbol of straight achievement. Maybe the “invisible weightless backpack” that the US feminist Peggy McIntosh uses to describe white privilege, full of “special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks”, does weigh rather a lot after all.

Grayson Perry is a Turner Prize-winning artist. In 2012, his series All In The Best Possible Taste was broadcast on Channel 4, and in 2013 he delivered the BBC’s Reith Lectures. He guest-edited the New Statesman in October 2014.

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Rough justice: who is looking out for the wrongfully convicted?

How internet sleuths - and secret courts - have changed the reporting of miscarriages of justice.

The letter from Whitemoor Prison in Cambridgeshire was in poor English but its message was clear. The writer claimed he was serving a life sentence for a murder that he had not committed. What was also clear was that this was no ordinary case. Not only was the victim a respected author and photographer who lived in one of the most expensive streets in London, but his alleged killer was the grandson of Chairman Mao’s third-in-command and an informant for MI6 whose entire defence at his Old Bailey trial had been heard in secret, with reporters excluded from the court.

It took some weeks to unravel the story of Wang Yam, who was convicted of the murder of Allan Chappelow at his home in Hampstead in 2006. Wang had supposedly broken in to Chappelow’s letter box at his front gate to steal bank details and, according to the prosecution, probably killed him when confronted. The victim’s body was discovered several days later.

In his letter, Wang claimed that because the press had been barred from reporting his defence he had not received a fair trial. With my colleague Richard Norton-Taylor, I wrote a story about the case that appeared in the Guardian in January 2014. Shortly afterwards, a former close neighbour of Chappelow contacted us to say that, after Wang was already in custody, someone had tried to break into his letter box, too, and that the intruder, when discovered, had threatened to kill him and his family. In April, the Criminal Cases Review Commission announced that, as a result of this fresh evidence, the case was going back to the Court of Appeal. It is now expected to be heard soon.

Even though no murder trial had ever been heard in such secrecy at the Old Bailey before or since, the media largely ignored the story. Tales of alleged miscarriage of justice don’t make many waves these days.

As it happens, Wang Yam’s referral to the Appeal Court came just as a large book entitled The Nicholas Cases arrived in my mail. It is by Bob Woffinden and the slightly obscure title is a reference to St Nicholas, better known as Santa Claus, who in early Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted. And, boy, do they need a saint these days. The author takes ten cases, introduces us to the accused, tells their stories and shares the frustration of the convicted men and women as well as their lawyers and families.

Some of the cases may be familiar. Jonathan King, the former singer and music entrepreneur, was sentenced to seven years in 2001 for sexual offences against boys aged 14 and 15. What is less well known is that he was convicted not of offences relating to his original arrest, but of others that came to light as a result of the media publicity surrounding his case. Another case is that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in the Lake District in August 1997 (the media named it the “Lady in the Lake trial”). Park was convicted in January 2005. He hanged himself in prison and in despair in January 2010.

Other cases, such as that of Emma Bates, received less press coverage. In 2009 Bates was convicted of the murder of her violent and abusive ex-partner Wayne Hill in Birmingham. She killed Hill with a single stab wound in a confrontation at her home, and it is hard, reading her story, to understand why she is now serving a minimum of 15 years. Woffinden believes that all ten suspects should not have been convicted but he tells their stories in enough detail for one to understand why they were. Each tale unfolds like an intriguing television drama, with our judgements and preconceptions
of innocence or guilt tugged both ways.

Woffinden has ploughed an increasingly lonely furrow on the subject, following in the footsteps of two other campaigning authors. The first was Ludovic Kennedy, whose book 10 Rillington Place, published in 1961, exposed the wrongful hanging of Timothy Evans. The second was Paul Foot, who campaigned relentlessly in Private Eye, the Daily Mirror and in books on many cases, including that of the Bridgewater Four, convicted of the murder of a newspaper boy, Carl Bridgewater, in 1978. Woffinden produced a volume called Miscarriages of Justice
in 1987, and in 2015 he published Bad Show, in which he suggests that Major Charles Ingram, convicted of rigging the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? by placing allies in the audience who coughed strategically, was innocent.

What is striking about Woffinden’s latest volume, however, is his criticism of the media on three counts. “It is not merely that the media fails to draw attention to wrongful convictions when they occur; it is not just that trials leading to these injustices are misleadingly reported; it is that, in some instances, the media itself has played a key role in bringing about the wrongful conviction,” he writes.

***

For over two centuries, the media have been crucial to both freeing and convicting innocent suspects in murder cases. In 1815 Eliza Fenning, a household cook, appeared at the Old Bailey, charged with attempting to poison her employers with arsenic in their steak and dumplings. It was suggested that she had done so after being scolded for consorting with young male apprentices.

She protested her innocence and a radical writer, William Hone, took up her case, visited her in Newgate Prison and launched a newspaper, the Traveller, to fight for her release. It probably did no harm to her cause that she was young and beautiful; the artist Robert Cruikshank drew her reading the Bible in her cell. It was all to no avail: Fenning was hanged. And yet, ever since, writers and journalists have taken up such cases.

Arthur Conan Doyle campaigned in the Daily Telegraph for George Edalji, ­convicted on the bizarre charge of disembowelling a horse in Staffordshire in 1903. Edalji, an Anglo-Indian solicitor, served three years’ hard labour but was eventually pardoned and concern about his conviction led partly to the creation in 1907 of the Court of Criminal Appeal. (Julian Barnes’s book Arthur & George is based on the case.)

Conan Doyle, too, was active in the campaign to prove the innocence of Oscar Slater, a German Jew convicted of the murder in Glasgow in 1908 of Marion Gilchrist, a wealthy, elderly single woman. Class and anti-Jewish prejudice clearly played a part in the police investigation, and the initial press coverage of the campaign to free him was dismissive. “Efforts most harmful and ill-advised are being made to work up popular feeling and to receive signatures with the object of obtaining a reprieve,” the Scotsman sniffed. “However amiable may be the sentiments that may have prompted some of those who have taken part in the movement, it is one that cannot be otherwise than mischievous and futile.” It took nearly two decades to prove Slater’s innocence. Scottish journalists played an important part in keeping the story alive.

Yet for many years there remained the feeling that such miscarriages of justice were very few. Those who sought to question convictions in contentious cases were often mocked, as was the case when the earliest doubts were expressed about the guilt of the Birmingham Six. “Loony MP backs bomb gang” was the headline in the Sun when the Labour politician and journalist Chris Mullin challenged their conviction. But with the vindication of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven and suspects in other so-called “Irish cases”, there was finally a recognition that something was very rotten in the justice system.

There followed a flowering of investigations into dubious cases. In 1982, the BBC launched the TV series Rough Justice, which carried out investigations over the next quarter-century. Some of its journalists went on to found Trial and Error, which did the same for Channel 4 from 1993 to 1999. Concerns about the extent of such cases led to the formation in 1997 of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. It has since referred 629 cases back to the Court of Appeal, 414 of which had been successful; a further 689 cases are under review. But both Rough Justice and Trial and Error were discontinued, victims of media austerity.

Investigations into such cases take time and money. With broadcasters and news­papers forced to tighten their belt, there is little appetite for researching complex claims that may lead nowhere. Meanwhile, the introduction in 2013 of new rules affecting funds for criminal cases has sharply reduced access to legal aid lawyers. Lawyers also suffer from the arcane effects of the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996, with some solicitors still unsure about what can be released to the media.

There has been a change in the political climate, too. Tony Blair encapsulated this in 2002 when he said: “It is perhaps the biggest miscarriage of justice in today’s system when the guilty walk away unpunished.” The subtext to this is that we shouldn’t be too soft-hearted with every plea of innocence. This attitude is reflected in the way that even those who are eventually cleared on overwhelming evidence are treated.

Previously, victims of miscarriages of justice were compensated financially for their lost years. No longer. Victor Nealon, a former postman, was convicted of attempted rape in 1996 and served 17 years – ten years longer than his recommended tariff, because he continued to protest his innocence. In 2013, after new DNA evidence from the clothes of the assault victim pointed to “an unknown male” as the one responsible for the crime, he was freed with just £46 in his pocket. The Ministry of Justice has declined to compensate Nealon financially because, under the new rules, his innocence has to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt” – that is to say, someone else has to be convicted of the crime. It is an absurd state of affairs.

***

The internet – social media in particular – has given platforms and publicity to those who claim to have been wrongfully convicted. Yet, as Woffinden points out, the web has also had a negative effect, because there are now hundreds of sites dedicated to claims of miscarriages of justice. “The whole history of miscarriages of justice in the UK in the postwar era was based on the ‘top of the pile’ principle,” he argues. “A case reached the top of the pile. It was focused on; it was rectified. Another case then took its place at the top of the pile. Now there are far too many cases jostling for attention, with the result that no case gets adequate attention. As the newspapers’ ability to campaign on these issues has been weakened, so they are less inclined to publish stories that they think aren’t going anywhere.”

It is also much harder for journalists to meet people who claim to be victims. When I wanted to visit Kevin Lane, who has long protested his innocence of the 1994 murder of Robert Magill, shot in a hitman killing in Hertfordshire, it took months before officials granted permission. I was accompanied by a Home Office official and our entire interview at Frankland Prison in County Durham was tape-recorded.

Wang Yam, the MI6 informant, was told at Whitemoor after his story first appeared in the Guardian that he was not allowed to correspond with us again, though the Ministry of Justice claims this is now no longer the case. In the United States, a prisoner who wants to contact a journalist has an automatic right to do so, making investigative reporting much easier.

What about the Innocence Project? This US organisation was founded in 1992 and harnessed the energy of law students to investigate cases of alleged wrongful conviction. For a while, the idea flourished in Britain, too; Bristol University launched a version in 2004. However, such projects now struggle to overcome the same hurdles of access and resources as the media.

Not everyone who claims to be innocent is telling the truth, especially if the crime is especially heinous. One case which received much publicity was that of Simon Hall, who was convicted in 2003 of the horrific murder of Joan Albert, aged 79. It was taken up by Rough Justice after an active campaign on Hall’s behalf but then, in 2013, he told prison officials that he was guilty. In doing so, he gravely undermined the claims of many of the genuinely innocent. He hanged himself in prison the following year. As the former armed robber Noel “Razor” Smith notes in his wry poem “The Old Lags”, prison is full of people who claim they were wrongly convicted:

Yeah, I been stitched right up

It’s funny you should ask

I’m here for what I didn’t do

I didn’t wear a mask!

But there is little editorial outrage about a murder trial being held in secret and scant concern that so many dubious convictions slip by, unreported for reasons of economy, indifference or fashion. Contrast those sil­ences about the law with the apoplectic response to the Supreme Court decision last year to uphold an injunction against the Sun on Sunday reporting the names of the “celebrity threesome”. The Sun called it “the day free speech drowned” and quoted the Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the decision as “a legalistic hijack of our liberty”. The Daily Mail informed readers soberly: “Supreme Court judges yesterday declared that people in England and Wales have no right to know about the sex lives of celebrities.” As if. All that was missing was Tony Hancock: “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?”

***

Where now for wrongful convictions? Louise Shorter, a former producer on Rough Justice, sees a glimmer of hope. She now works for Inside Justice, the investigative unit attached to the prisoners’ newspaper Inside Time, that was set up in 2010 to investigate wrongful convictions. She acknowledges the current difficulties: “Unravelling a miscarriage of justice case can take a decade or more. Television wants a beginning, middle and end to any story and wants it now, and that’s hard to achieve when the criminal justice wheels turn so very slowly.”

Yet Shorter says that her phone has been ringing off the hook following two successful American ventures: the podcast Serial and the Netflix series Making a Murderer. In September, she presented the two-part BBC documentary Conviction: Murder at the Station, in which she investigated the case of Roger Kearney, who protests his innocence of the murder of his lover Paula Poolton. Her body was found in her car at Southampton train station in 2008. “The media finally latched on to what the public has known for years: real-life whodunnits – or did-they-do-its – always have been and remain immensely popular,” Shorter says.

As Wang Yam awaits his appeal hearing and hundreds of others hope that their cases are heard, let us hope that she is right and that we have not returned to the days when only a “loony MP” or the “mischievous and futile” could challenge the law. 

“We’ll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain” by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott & Thompson

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit