When bloodlust takes over

Many of the great miscarriages of justice in the 1970s and early 1980s involved the conviction of alleged terrorists - the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and so on - at a time of near-hysteria among the public about IRA bombings. So great was the pressure on the authorities to satisfy the demand for retribution that the police sometimes manipulated evidence and the courts ignored the warning signs. Now, two or three murder cases a year - Rachel Nickell, Sarah Payne, the Russells and Jill Dando are just the most memorable examples - receive the kind of media coverage that used to be reserved for a terrorist mass killing. Murder victims have become posthumous celebrities; we grieve for them as if they were members of our own families. Not to join in the national sorrow and the fervent wish for a swift arrest (or the fervent bloodlust, if we are to be blunt about it) is to seem cold and uncaring. Broadsheet newspapers and the BBC, which used briefly to report the mere facts of a murder, join in the general hue and cry. And all the time, the volume of media output increases, with round-the-clock news channels, bigger newspapers, bigger pictures and a veritable army of Lynda Lee-Potters ready to conduct heart-rending interviews. A murder is now followed by a national wake that lasts for months, sometimes years.

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that the police, faced with a difficult case, eventually feel they have to make an arrest. A local oddball will do. If he has "previous", all the better; though this cannot be disclosed during the trial, its subsequent emergence will strengthen the public belief that the police have done their job and got the right man, whether or not he is actually found guilty. That was the case with Colin Stagg, wrongly accused of the Nickell murder. It may also be the case with Barry George, now convicted of Jill Dando's murder.

In one respect, the police have moved forward. They made no attempt to invent evidence - they simply pressed on without any, save for George's apparent attempts to construct an alibi; his obsession with celebrities in general (if that makes him a murderer, all readers of Hello! and OK! should be under 24-hour surveillance); a single speck of firearms residue; and a few questionable sightings in the vicinity of the shooting. As John Steele, the experienced crime correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, reported, it was "one of the thinnest prosecution cases in a major murder trial . . . no confession, no evidence of obsession with Miss Dando and no weapon". Many lawyers were astonished both that the Crown Prosecution Service decided to proceed and that a judge allowed the case to go to trial. The evidence that could not be used in court - George's long history of stalking women - turned out to be the most powerful available.

We can only speculate about what went through the minds of the jurors. Possibly, the very paucity of the evidence led them to believe that the police and the prosecution knew something they didn't. But we can be certain that jurors, as much as the police, are conscious of the public pressure to bring what is fashionably called "closure" to a distressing case. When everybody feels involved with murder victims, a fair trial becomes almost impossible. Nobody would have dreamed of putting Miss Dando's fiance, Alan Farthing, on the jury panel but, if the whole nation loved her (as the press frequently tell us), are 12 randomly selected people likely to be any more coolly rational than he would be?

None of this is an argument for abandoning trial by jury, still less for restricting press coverage of murder cases. It may well be an argument for moving to a less adversarial system of justice, so that evidence is examined more thoroughly and professionally, at least before a case goes to trial. It is certainly an argument for easing the political pressure on the police to achieve a "result", particularly in highly publicised murders. It is also, emphatically, an argument against allowing previous convictions to be disclosed during trial, since that would merely give everybody further reason to grab the nearest convenient scapegoat.

And that is the nub of it. The prevailing climate of press and public opinion demands toughness on crime. But that too easily shades into indifference to the rights of the innocent; and sometimes into the wholly unacceptable view that, if a man has a criminal history, his rights somehow matter less than other people's. Nobody can say for sure that Barry George is innocent; indeed, the theory that he is responsible is the most plausible of any so far advanced for Miss Dando's death. But this is not the same as saying that he is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. It has been said that it is better for ten guilty men to go free than for one innocent to be convicted. In the present climate, that principle is in peril.

Bonuses all round!

How encouraging to see that sound modern business principles continue to be applied in every corner of national life. BBC audiences may be falling and its programmes critically reviled, but Greg Dyke, the director-general, gets a £91,000 bonus on top of his £347,000 salary. This is not awarded for any improvement in the quality of the product, but mainly for cutting 1,100 jobs. We may despair at the mentality of leaders who happily pocket pay rises as a reward for depriving other people of their livelihoods and (in Mr Dyke's case) of their croissants. But instead of indulging in such outdated sentiments, we should, in a forward-looking spirit, look for extensions of the principle. A bonus for Samuel Beckett for Waiting for Godot, a work so economical in its casting that the hero never arrives. A bonus for any football manager who fields a team of ten men, even if he loses every match. A bonus for the headteacher when truancy rises, and another for the prison governor when the inmates escape.

This article first appeared in the 09 July 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Just you wait until I grow up