Prejudice? What prejudice?

When Barry George was arrested, newspapers branded him a weirdo and a loner - and we are asked to be

"Exclusive: Dando evidence hyped up," said the Mirror. The Mail on Sunday revealed "the 100-page report that could set Jill Dando 'killer' free". And the Express offered: "We reveal why the disturbed loner could have been jailed for a crime committed by a Serbian gunman."

How times change. The Mirror's headline on 3 July 2001, after Barry George was convicted of murdering the BBC presenter, was a full-blooded "Jill's mad assassin"; the Mail went for "Beauty and the Beast" and the Sun gave us "He tried to kill Di too". Oops.

Of course, it is not the fault of the newspapers if the courts can't be trusted to get decisions right. They just did what papers do. Having dutifully sat on some lurid (if ancient) material about George right through the trial, they unleashed it the moment the jury said "guilty" - photos of him with guns and a gas mask, a 20-year-old attempted rape conviction, an arrest outside Kensington Palace and more.

Today, though, the case seems to have the makings of one of those Private Eye apologies: "Any impression we may have given in the past that Mr George was anything other than a law-abiding citizen unjustifiably caught up in a web of flimsy circumstantial evidence was entirely unintentional . . ."

But there is more to this than watching tabloids trip up. If George wins the second appeal he has been granted (and for legal reasons the odds are probably still against him), there will be strong grounds for looking closely at the contribution the media made to a notoriously dubious conviction.

This included the most flagrant breaches of the Contempt of Court Act - breaches that government law officers blithely ignored. The law says that no information which might prejudice a future jury against a suspect is supposed to be published once legal proceedings are active - for example, after an arrest has been made.

Yet for three days after George was taken into custody in May 2000, papers were pumping out material about the weird loner and hypochondriac who lived in squalor, supposedly idolised Princess Diana and pretended alternately that he was an SAS veteran and Freddie Mercury's cousin. The vilification only stopped after he was charged.

This was damaging enough for a man accused of killing one of the most famous and popular women in the country, but the context made the impact on George's defence all the greater.

Just a month before the arrest, the BBC's Crimewatch UK (on which Dando had worked) had interviewed the detective in charge of the investigation, Chief Inspector Hamish Campbell.

More than he had ever done in the year since the murder, Campbell focused in this interview on the likelihood that the killer was "someone who is emotionally isolated", someone with an "obsession with women" and someone who knew about guns.

Not rocket science, you may say, except that the official picture had always previously been clouded by the evidence of professionalism in the killing - the apparent knowledge of Dando's complex movements, the single shot to the head and the swift escape all seemed to imply coolness rather than obsession. In that live Crimewatch interview on 19 April 2000 (which took place just one day after his officers had conducted their first search of Barry George's home), Campbell finally ceased to keep all his options open and instead put his money on the killer being an obsessed loner with a knowledge of guns.

A month later George was in custody and the press was pumping out evidence that he was a loner fixated on celebrities such as Diana, and claiming a military past - in other words, exactly the sort of man we had been told the police were looking for.

The legal test for a contempt of court is that there must be "a substantial risk of serious prejudice". Three senior judges, at trial and appeal, have ruled that there was no such risk in the Barry George case. I find that baffling.

Views in briefs

Becky and Mel are cross about the new EU treaty and they don't care who knows it. "This is going to have a huge influence in how our country is run," Mel told the Sun. "It's only right Gordon Brown gives us a referendum."

Who, you may ask, are Becky and Mel? They were the Sun's joint page three girls last Tuesday, topless on the lawn (on page seven, as it happens), and their views appeared in the traditional speech bubble labelled "news in briefs".

I would not dream of questioning whether Mel actually uttered those words, any more than I would ask where the photographer found that bright sunshine in the wet days between the EU summit and publication. I only observe that this conforms to a remarkably consistent pattern of recent months: Gordon Brown is fortunate in his adversaries.

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins