The interior of the Old Bailey criminal court in London in May 1910. (Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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The decline of the British trial

Once, UK courts were full of reporters and members of the public. Now, with the exception of rare spectacles, the press and public benches are usually empty – and we are all poorer for it.

“What thrill at the theatre or cinema compares with the excitement of attending a criminal trial, of beholding in the flesh the man or woman who may be guilty of some secret or bloody deed, and watching, half fearful, half shrinking, the great game played by judge and counsel with the accused’s life as stake?” So wrote Harry Hodge in his introduction to the first edition of Penguin’s Famous Trials series, launched in 1941 at the height of the Second World War.

The trials Hodge chose to introduce the series were of notorious cases from the preceding several decades: Madeleine Smith, the 21-year-old Scottish beauty charged in 1857 at the high court in Edinburgh with poisoning her lover; Dr Crippen, accused in 1910 of murdering his wife and fleeing the country with his lover, Ethel Le Neve, disguised as a boy. “All Great Britain was agitated over the trial,” wrote Hodge of the Smith case, which ended in the Scots law verdict of “not proven”.

By the time of the fifth edition of the series, in 1955, with the price now raised from a florin to half a crown, Hodge’s son James, the new editor, wrote that “the real murders described in this book are even more horrifying that those usually found between Penguin green covers”. They included that of Neville Heath, the sadistic killer of two young women in the immediate postwar period, and of George Lamson, a doctor who was hanged for poisoning a relative with a slice of Dundee cake to secure his share of an inheritance. “Factual and unbiased accounts of criminal trials broaden our outlook and give us fleeting glimpses of other modes of life,” wrote Hodge junior.

Heath’s trial in 1946 was such a hot ticket that people queued all night under blankets outside the Old Bailey in London for admission to the 30 seats in the public gallery, as if it were Wimbledon.

In some ways, the opening days last month of the Old Bailey trial of Rebekah Brooks, Andy Coulson and others, all pleading not guilty to charges related to the News of the World phone-hacking affair, were just like old times: the crowds, the queues, the bustle and excitement. Seventy journalists, representing all the British press, not to mention Al Jazeera, El Confidencial, and the Wall Street Journal, were on hand to report. Curious onlookers hung around in the street outside, gazing at all the frantic activity. But this was very much a throwback to another era.

When I first started covering criminal trials in the early 1970s, long queues were still common for high-profile murder cases. The public gallery would be full, people craning their necks to see the accused brought up from the cells. Today many murder trials take place without a single person in the press box or a single member of the public in the gallery.

So, whatever happened to British trials and why do they often pass us by unnoticed, except for the opening day’s prosecution case and the jury’s verdict?

One reason is that before daytime television the warm, centrally heated public galleries of courts provided the enthralling – and free – entertainment of which Harry Hodge wrote so enthusiastically. What could be a more absorbing way of spending a day than seeing the accused in a murder or kidnap case being cross-examined by a scathing QC (or, previously, KC) or sentenced by an unforgiving judge? But now, with a hundred television channels offering entertainment that blurs the lines between real and fictional crime, why bother to leave the house?

The other major reason for the decline of trials in the public consciousness is that the press no longer stimulates interest in them by sustained coverage. When there were three London evening papers with a total circulation of more than two million, trials accounted for a significant section of the news in the capital. A major murder case would lead to increased circulation.

An important factor in the interest in a murder trial was that cases could end with the judge donning his black cap and proclaiming that the accused be taken from this place and hanged by the neck until he was dead. The former editor of the Evening News Lou Kirby once told me that the abolition of hanging in 1965 significantly decreased interest in such trials. But even after Albert Pierrepoint had hung up his noose, with its 450 notches in it, there was still a healthy interest in and coverage of murder trials in the national press.

When Rosemary West stood trial in Winchester in 1995, charged with the murders of ten young women, every national paper had a reporter in court every day. Such was the demand for press seats that we were informed by court officials at the start of the trial that if we failed to turn up for a single session, we would forfeit our seat for the entire trial. The Times had two full-time reporters there and some papers regularly sent in their “colour” writers so that they could stare at West for a moment or two and tell their readers that they had “locked eyes with the face of evil”. There were no fewer than five authors – Gordon Burn, Andrew O’Hagan, Howard Sounes, Brian Masters and Geoffrey Wansell – also present. An overspill court had to be provided to hear the opening address from a smart, up-and-coming prosecuting counsel called Brian Leveson.

But the days when criminal trials were reported in detail have ended. Forty years ago, there were seven Press Association reporters at the Old Bailey, while the Mail, Express, Times and Telegraph all had staffers there. Now there are only two PA staffers and no national paper still has a dedicated reporter there, the last incumbent being the Telegraph’s admirable Sue Clough. Like much of the press, they have switched their attention to greater coverage of celebrities – a mere tweet being enough to justify a story and an accompanying photograph – without the bother of time-consuming staff absence from the office. Few papers can still afford to dedicate a reporter to cover court cases in anything more than a sketchy fashion and too often the court report you read will have been written by a hard-pressed but uncredited agency reporter. Much of the detail, in which the devil operated, has been lost.

“The glory days are certainly over,” said one veteran reporter in the press room in the bowels of the Old Bailey in late September, when I visited the court. A significant murder trial with nine defendants in the dock was kicking off, the jury sworn, but there was little interest from the national media. Experienced court reporters shake their heads sadly and regret the drift.

“Newspapers and broadcasters are so driven by focus groups and marketing surveys that they have lost sight of what news actually is,” says Guy Toyn, director of Court News, Britain’s only specialist court agency. “When we publish material on our website, we often get responses like, ‘Why haven’t we seen this in a national newspaper?’ The fact is people are still absolutely fascinated by the dark and surreal side of life that is only ever revealed in court stories . . . For a regional newspaper, it is easier and cheaper for them to rewrite a company press release than actually dig out a great story – or to pay someone to do it for them.”

Local newspapers, also now a dying breed throughout Britain, relied on the courts as a staple of their coverage, a role noted approvingly by the judiciary. As Lord Denning wrote in The Road to Justice in 1955, “a newspaper reporter is in every court. He sits through the dullest cases in the court of appeal and the most trivial cases before the magistrates. He says nothing but he writes a lot. He is, I verily believe, the watchdog of justice.” No more.

Currently more than 1.5 million cases make their way through the 330 magistrates courts of England and Wales every year and around 130,000 cases through the 91 crown courts. Who notices? In Scotland, there are attempts to cut the number of courts to save money, which has met resistance; Sheriff Kevin Drummond told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee: “I do not care whether the court is conducted in the back of a large furniture van; it should go to rural locations.” Quite right.

This is an international issue, too. Ed Vulliamy, in his haunting book about the aftermath of the Balkan conflict, The War is Dead, Long Live the War, noted that, when the stories of the appalling atrocities visited on the Bosnians were rehearsed in front of the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, “the public and press galleries were often empty”.

It was the Scottish lawyer William Roughead, who recognised the importance of the trial in society and pioneered its coverage. Joyce Carol Oates has acknowledged this in the New York Review of Books: “Roughead’s influence was enormous and, since his time, ‘true crime’ has become a crowded, flourishing field, though few writers of distinction have been drawn to it . . . his accounts of murder cases and trials have the advantage of being concise and pointed, like folk tales.”

So, perhaps it should be no surprise that Scotland has pioneered the televising of trials. This summer, the Scottish courts authorised the televising of a murder trial, shown on Channel 4. The retrial of Nat Fraser, for the 1998 murder of his wife, Arlene, was filmed with the (eventual) permission of the participants over a period of six weeks at the High Court in Edinburgh.

England and Wales followed suit this October and the filming of legal arguments and the final judgments at the Court of Appeal are now allowed. “Justice must be seen to be done,” said the then courts minister, Helen Grant, announcing the move. The next step will be the filming of the sentencing process in crown courts, although “victims, witnesses, offenders and jurors will . . . not be part of broadcasts.”

The media organisations that use filmed court proceedings will supposedly cover the costs. This will not solve anything. As Helena Kennedy QC has written: “Voyeurism and money is behind this agenda and the justice system will not be the beneficiary.”

Nick Davies, the reporter who put in heroic work on the phone-hacking scandal, has written in the Guardian that criminal and civil courts “are probably the most productive single sources of stories in this country”. He is right. A morning in a magistrate’s court will tell you more about the state of the nation in terms of education, class, family, employment, immigration, consumerism, honesty, addiction to drink and drugs, sexual politics, housing, health and alienation than a dozen think-tank reports.

During the Olympics last year, I reported for the Guardian from the special court set up to deal with offenders arrested in connection with the Games. The court became a microcosm of world attitudes to the whole business of the Olympics and sport but it was almost empty of press or public. One case I covered was that of a Lithuanian man arrested for making Nazi salutes and monkey noises during his country’s basketball game with Nigeria; his puzzled defence was that this was perfectly normal behaviour where he came from and no one had ever complained before.

I also reported from Edinburgh’s Sheriff Court during the Festival there last year. What emerged was a portrait of a society where drink and drugs were the almost inevitable lubricant of social and criminal life. “No drink was involved,” said the prosecutor in one case, adding “unusually for this court”. Again I was alone in the press gallery in three different courts, where once would have been reporters from the Evening News and the (now defunct) Evening Dispatch.

Not for nothing has the trial formed such a key part of our film and television lives, from films such as Witness for the Prosecution back in 1957 to those 250 episodes of Crown Court that ran between 1972 and 1985. Neither is it a coincidence that so many of our most eloquent politicians come from a background in the courts, where an ability to charm and convince are important.

The late Labour leader John Smith, who had been an admired criminal advocate, was once said – and I hope this story is true because I have told it a few times – to have gone below court to express his regret to a client who, despite Smith’s best efforts, had been convicted. “Don’t worry,” said the defendant, albeit in dialect, “you were so good, I almost believed you myself.”

I am always amazed when someone says that they have never attended a trial. When friends come to London from abroad, I often encourage them to visit the Old Bailey or the Royal Courts of Justice, which seem just as vital to an understanding of the country as Tate Modern or Hyde Park. Does it matter? Yes, it does. Partly for the old reason (see above) that “justice not only has to be done, it has to be seen to be done” – or, as J B Morton wickedly added, “has to be seen to be believed”. But also because trials are essential to our understanding of how our society operates.

In the oft-quoted words of Lord Atkinson, in his judgment in Scott v Scott, in 1913, “the hearing of a case in public may be, and often is, no doubt, painful, humiliating, or deterrent both to parties and witnesses . . . but all this is tolerated and endured because it is felt that in the public trial is to be found, on the whole, the best security for the pure, impartial and efficient administration of justice, the best means of winning for it public confidence and respect”.

To win that respect, the criminal justice system has to smarten up its act. There are far too many interruptions for legal arguments that could have been dealt with by email prior to the trial; far too many delays because a defendant has been brought late to court by whatever lackadaisical private security company has the job that week; far too many sighing judges because barristers or advocates arrive in court unbriefed.

Next year will be the 100th anniversary of the writing of Franz Kafka’s great novel The Trial, (although it was not published for a further decade). How fitting for the memory of Josef K if we were once again to take seriously the trial as a legal process that directly or indirectly affects the lives of millions of us, costs us billions of pounds a year, both in terms of its actual processes and its consequences behind the bars of our jails, but that now receives far too little attention. Time to halt the decline of the British trial.

Duncan Campbell is a former crime correspondent for the Guardian

Chris Ball/UNP
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The fish-eaters and the fasters

With a population split between whites and Asian Muslims, in some ways Nelson in Lancashire feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication.

In the late afternoon of local election day this month, the chairman of Nelson Town Council was working the terraces of old cotton weavers’ houses on his patch. Sajid Ali was wearing a red rosette and a navy blue cardigan over his capacious white shalwar kameez, and what looked like his dancing shoes.

This was not the forlorn ritual of unanswered doors, blank looks and curt responses habitually experienced by Labour canvassers even in more promising political times. Along these streets Sajid is a figure of some consequence: a jolly fellow and, as one opponent put it, an “interesting character”.

Almost everyone was in; Sajid knew almost all of them; and they in turn understood what was required. Sometimes a quick burst of Lancy Punjabi did the job: “Salaam alaykum, yoong maan, how yer doing? What time yer coomin’ to vote?” To older voters his spiel would be entirely in Punjabi and the response would often be a head-wobble, that characteristic south Asian gesture, which, when given to Westerners, can be baffling, but in these cases clearly signified solid intention.

The Labour candidate in the Brierfield and Nelson West division of Lancashire County Council, Mohammed Iqbal, held his seat comfortably on the day his party lost control of the county. And he did so on a poll of 58 per cent: a far higher turnout than in any of the other, whiter areas of Pendle; the highest in Lancashire; and higher than wards with these demographics would usually expect even at a general election. The average across Lancashire on 4 May was 37 per cent. It seems reasonable to conclude that the votes from those of ­Pakistani heritage, marshalled by Sajid, were wholly responsible.

Nelson is a strange, sad, divided, forgotten old cotton town, not without beauty. The weavers’ houses are stone not brick, which, elsewhere, might make them rather chic. A few minutes from town is wonderful Pennine countryside, and to the north the view is dominated by Pendle Hill itself, brooding like some sleeping sea monster.

Pendle is both the borough council and the constituency, where the mix of urban and rural has delivered it to the winning side in seven of the eight general elections since its creation 34 years ago. (Labour took it, five years prematurely, in 1992.) No one seriously believes the 5,400 Tory majority is in play. Nonetheless, Nelson can explain a lot about British politics in 2017.

“This was a cracking town,” said John Bramwell (“John the Fish”), who has been purveying cod, haddock and non-stop banter to Nelson for 41 years, first on the market, now from one of the last white-run, independent shops in the town centre. Nelson had a football team that played fleetingly (1923-24) in the old Second Division, what is now called the Championship. And in 1929 the Lancashire League cricket team, flashing cash in a manner that baffled the national press, signed Learie Constantine, the most gifted and thrilling West Indian all-rounder of his generation.

“When he arrived, no one in Nelson had ever seen a black man close-to,” said Derek Metcalfe, the club’s historian. “People would cross the road when he passed by. But he grew into their affections. He was a highly intelligent man as well as a great player.” Constantine, after a post-cricket career in the law, Trinidadian politics and diplomacy, finished life in the House of Lords as Baron Constantine of Maraval and Nelson, Britain’s first black peer. In July 1943 the Imperial Hotel in Bloomsbury accepted his booking but not his presence, and he promptly sued. His victory at the high court the following year was an early landmark in the fight against racial discrimination.

It was the 1950s before Nelson would get used to seeing non-white faces again, when the mill owners, battling labour shortages and overseas competition, turned to Pakistan to find biddable and affordable workers. They found them in Gujrat District, which is not one of the more worldly places, even in the rural Punjab.

“The first group were young men who in many ways integrated better than they do now. There were no mosques. They went to the pubs with their workmates and knocked around with local women. Then they had to go to the airport to collect the intended wives they hadn’t met yet,” recalled Tony Greaves, the Liberal Democrat peer who is deputy leader of Pendle Borough Council.

The mills disappeared, gradually but inexorably, but the Pakistani community kept growing and has now reached its fourth generation. The young men do not normally spend time in pubs; indeed, in a town of 30,000 people, there are only two left, plus a couple on the outskirts. It is hard to imagine anywhere that size in Britain with fewer. There are, however, at least a dozen mosques. The 2011 census recorded 40 per cent of the population as Asian, but on market day in the town centre the proportion seems much higher. The most prominent retail outlets are two bazaars: the Nelson (the
old Poundstretcher) and the Suraj opposite (the old Woolworths). Few white faces are seen in either: the saris and hijabs are beautiful but of little interest. They are all imported to this textile town from south Asia.

The white people have retreated, either out of the town altogether or to the semis of Marsden, on the hill. In the visible life of Nelson, they are clearly a minority. Population change on this scale can be accommodated, if not always easily, in large cities. It is a different proposition in a small town that was once tight-knit and, despite its closeness to larger places such as Blackburn, Accrington and Burnley, largely self-contained.

Even after 60 years, hardly anything has melted in the pot. The early migrants were villagers who placed little value on education. Recent history has led Muslims all over the world to turn inwards, to their own religion and culture. This is being exacerbated by white flight and by the advent of religious free schools, a disaster for anywhere in search of cohesion. The old Nelsonians have turned away. “Nelson is not multiracial or multicultural. It is biracial and bicultural,” says Greaves. “I would love to tell you that I go round to Abbas’s house to have chicken jalfrezi and he comes to mine for steak pudding and chips,” says John the Fish. “It’s just not like that.”

Unemployment is high at 18 per cent; there is no shortage of taxis. Educational attainment is patchy. Teachers at the two high schools fear their best pupils will be creamed off further by the promised grammar-school boom.

The vicar of Nelson, Guy Jamieson, and at least some of the local imams do their utmost to make connections between the communities. In certain respects Nelson feels like similar-sized towns in Ulster: two communities separated by a gulf of non-communication. In other ways, this description is unfair. When Burnley, just four miles away, suffered riots in 2001, Nelson stayed quiet. I could sense no threat, no active tension, merely resigned indifference on both sides. “There’s a poverty of confidence,” Jamieson said. “They don’t know how to sit down and engage.”

***

A modern English town council, subordinate to Brussels, Westminster, county and district, is an improbable power base, but Sajid Ali seems to be making Nelson’s work. Its precept is only £330,000 a year but this is not capped, so it suits both district and town if Pendle offloads smaller assets: parks, play areas, community centres. It is a minimalist form of devolution, but harks back to the days when Nelson was a borough in its own right, and looks forward to an improbable future when our towns might again be allowed to take their own decisions as they do in more grown-up countries.

But the council votes on party lines, Labour’s 16 councillors trumping the Tories’ eight. “They won’t work with us,” Sajid says flatly. “They don’t run it fairly for the town itself,” says the Conservative Neil McGowan. “If we put something forward for Marsden, we are always outvoted. One council official told me they’d never come across a town like it.” In Tony Greaves’s words, “The
politics in Nelson were always sour.” In the 1930s it was known as Little Moscow.

When I first met Sajid, however, he was outside a polling station doing a stint as a teller and laughing merrily along with his blue-rosetted counterpart, Arshad Mahmood. Yet things were not quite as they seemed. Mahmood was part of a mass defection of Pakistani Lib Dems to the Conservatives which appears to have nothing to do with Brexit, extra taxes for the NHS or Maymania. What it does have to do with remains elusive even to local politicians: “clan politics” and “personal ambition” were mentioned. It may be even more complicated than that. “So you’ll be voting for Theresa May next month?” I asked Mahmood. “Oh, no, I like Jeremy Corbyn. Very good policies.”

Perhaps this helped Sajid maintain some enthusiasm for the bigger campaign ahead, though he was daunted by one fact: the general election coincides with Ramadan, and dawn-to-dusk fasting comes hard in these latitudes when it falls in summertime. Still, he was impressed by all the new members Corbyn had brought to Labour: “The way I see it is that each new member has five, ten, 15, 20 people they can sell the message to.”

This seemed a bit strange: it implied he thought politics in the rest of Britain worked as it did in these streets. He had boasted earlier that he knew everyone. “All over Nelson?” “Oh, no,” he had backtracked. “In the English community nobody knows their next-door neighbour.” Which was an exaggeration, but perhaps not much of one.

There were no posters along Sajid Ali’s streets – not one. The information about which house to choose was on the canvass return and, more significantly, in his head. Just once he got it wrong. A little white girl opened the door and then a tattooed, muscular figure in a singlet barrelled towards the door. He wasn’t aggressive, just brisk. “Naaw. I doan’t vote.” End of. It was a sudden reminder of the norms of modern British politics.

***

Another norm is that, at any local count, no one ever thinks much of the big picture. The rise and fall of prime ministers, earthquakes and landslides are no more than distant rumours, of surprisingly little interest to the principals; what matters is the here and now. Where did that ballot box come from? How big is the postal vote? Any chance of a recount? When the five seats for Pendle were counted the next day at the leisure centre in Colne, one stop further up the clanking branch line from Nelson, no one was talking about the Tory takeover at County Hall.

Here there was something for everyone: Mohammed Iqbal won, just as Sajid predicted. Azhar Ali took the other Nelson seat even more easily for Labour. Both results were greeted with more effusive male hugs than would be considered seemly in Berkshire. In Pendle Central the Tories knocked out the sitting Lib Dem, but – heroically, in their eyes – one of the Lib Dem candidates grabbed a seat in the rural division.

But the most interesting result came in the most trifling contest: a twinned by-election for two vacancies in Nelson Town Council’s lily-white ward of Marsden, so electors had two votes each. The seats were won by a Conservative married couple, the Pearson-Ashers, who got 426 and 401; the single BNP candidate had 359 votes, with one Labour candidate on 333 and the other on 190. The first of these was called Laura Blackburn; the second Ghulam Ullah. This suggests a good deal of vote-splitting that Labour might find rather unpalatable.

In fact, Marsden already has one far-right relic: Brian Parker, who sits on Pendle Borough Council, is the last survivor in the top two tiers of local government of the BNP mini-surge that took them to 55 council seats across the country by 2009. Of Parker, two opposing councillors told me: “He’s actually a very good ward councillor.”

Curiously, Ukip has made little impact in Nelson or in Pendle as a whole. So there is not much scope for the party to fulfil what appears to be its immediate destiny: as a way station for Labour’s historic core voters to catch their breath on the arduous journey into Theresa May’s arms. According to John the Fish, whose shop functions as a kind of confessional for white opinion, they may no longer need a stopover: “I’m getting plenty of people, staunch Labourites, telling me they can’t stand Corbyn.”

I asked him how many Pakistani regulars he had. He broke off from chopping hake and held up five fingers. On 8 June the fish-eaters of Marsden can be expected to rouse themselves more energetically than the Ramadan fasters across town.

***

Seedhill, the cricket ground graced by Constantine, is pretty Nelson rather than gritty Nelson, even though a chunk of it, including the old pavilion, was lopped off years ago to form an embankment carrying the M65. Upstairs in the pavilion is a wonderful picture of the great man, eyes ablaze, down on one knee for a full-blooded cover-drive. It would have made a better monument in the town centre than the 40-foot weaving shuttle that has dominated Market Street since 2011. I thought it was a torpedo; children think it’s a giant pencil.

The packed houses that watched Constantine lead Nelson to seven league titles in nine years have dwindled now: there were only a couple of dozen to watch his successors play Accrington recently. But it was a drab day with a chilly breeze and Burnley were at home to West Brom in the winter game down the road.

And generally the club thrives better than the town. Given the lack of hotels and pubs, the pavilion is much in demand for functions, and the team remains competitive. Nelson fielded four local Asians for the Accrington match, which suggests that, in one activity at least, integration is just about where it should be.

It seems unlikely that a similar situation would apply at the crown green bowls or the brass band, or any other of the long-standing recreations in Nelson (though small but growing numbers of Pakistanis are now taking allotments). The knee-jerk liberal reaction might be that this is somehow the fault of the white Nelsonians. I think this attitude is a grave oversimplification that has done much damage.

In one respect the incomers have re-created the old life of Nelson. In the hugger-mugger stone-built terraces, the neighbourliness, the power of extended families, the external patriarchy and the internal matriarchy, the vibrancy, the sense of communal struggle . . . that is exactly what this cotton town must have been like a century ago. 

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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