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George Osborne’s cunning plan: how the chancellor's austerity narrative has harmed recovery

The Tories claim austerity saved the country from disaster. But Osborne's neoliberal right economics drew on discredited theories - and ultimately scuppered growth.

© Jonathan McHugh

Over their five years in power, the Conservatives have claimed their austerity policy saved the country from disaster. This purported economic competence sits at the heart of their election campaign. It needs critical scrutiny.

The coalition government has given two main reasons why austerity – cutting the Budget deficit – was necessary. The first is that its predecessor Labour government, living “beyond its means”, left the nation with a rising mountain of public debt. The only way to restore fiscal probity was to start austerity as soon as possible.

The second reason was that commitment to austerity was the only way to reassure the bond markets that the British government would not “go the way of Greece”: that is, default on its debts. Both arguments were false but they have never been properly exposed in the media; and for various reasons Labour has not attacked them with the vigour they deserve.

In economic logic, the two reasons are independent of each other. How much a government needs to borrow should be determined by the state of the economy, not by how much debt its predecessor has left it. In a slump, a government should aim to increase its deficit, not reduce it, to compensate for the fall in private-sector spending. This will normally cause the economy to grow faster than the deficit and in turn reduce the deficit, and eventually the national debt, as a share of national income. But to understand this, you need to understand that a slump is defined by the existence of spare capacity: spare because the private sector is unwilling to create the jobs to use it. Instead of borrowing to keep people in idleness, the government should borrow to create jobs. Yet this common sense was seemingly no longer the common understanding.

Linking Labour overspending with the risk of “going the way of Greece” offered the Conservatives an alternative narrative of undoubted persuasive power. Had the Labour government not left so much debt, the Conservatives said, there would have been less need for austerity to reassure bondholders. George Osborne had to be so austere because Gordon Brown had been so profligate.

This message resonated politically. The collapse of the economy in 2008 took place on Labour’s watch. So it was easy to blame Labour for it. Labour felt unable to defend its record; so the Conservative narrative became the accepted one among the punditry. However, it is far from clear that voters bought this story at the time. Labour only narrowly lost the 2010 election; most political analysts believe that Brown’s lacklustre leadership cost the party between 20 and 30 seats. So, defending Labour’s record was not a hopeless task politically. But the Labour opposition soon gave up the attempt to do so, leaving the telling of Labour’s story to the Conservatives.

In the interests of truth, we need to ask two questions. How profligate or extravagant had Labour been? And how real was the threat of a bondholder strike?

The myth of Labour profligacy

The answer to the first question can be divided into two parts: Labour’s economic record before 2008 and its record in the post-crash years 2008 to 2010.

The Labour government had committed itself to Gordon Brown’s famous fiscal rules. In its draft election manifesto of 1996, it promised to “enforce the ‘golden rule’ of public spending – over the economic cycle, we will only borrow to invest and not to fund current expenditure”. This pledge was buttressed by the “sustainable investment rule”: over the cycle, the government would hold net public debt to below 40 per cent of GDP. Significantly, Brown’s tight spending plans of 1997-98 were set against “Conservative mismanagement of the public finances” – which only goes to show that, following a change of government, the incoming government always blames its predecessor for the fiscal mess it inherits.

A detailed, and far from uncritical, analysis of Labour’s fiscal record by Malcolm Sawyer of Leeds University, dating from 2007, found that between 1997-98 and 2005-2006 Brown, as chancellor, “nearly met” his fiscal targets. The current account deficit was close to zero over the period and the national debt stayed under 40 per cent of GDP. Sawyer put this record “close to achievement of the golden rule” partly down to good luck – surpluses generated by the dotcom boom of the late 1990s, reduction in world nominal interest rates – but partly to tricky (“creative”, in the jargon) accounting. The use of the private finance initiative (PFI) to fund the building of schools and hospitals “off budget” lowered the deficit in “real time” at the cost of raising it in the future. Had this investment programme been financed by conventional borrowing, the net debt-to-GDP ratio would have been closer to 50 per cent, rather than the recorded 33.6 per cent.

Second, the Brown Treasury kept redating the “economic cycle” (a fuzzy concept at best) to make its fiscal rules easier to meet. The main effect of this redating was to postpone the achievement of the zero balance on public investment needed to meet the sustainable investment rule. It was for these reasons that in 2005 the OECD noted that Britain’s fiscal policy “required attention”.

By 2007 the Treasury admitted that it was time to slow down the public-sector growth engine. Its Comprehensive Spending Review of February 2007 cut projected public spending from 4 per cent a year to 2.1 per cent a year over the following three years, less than the expected growth of the economy, which was itself expected to be lower than in the previous boom years. This would yield a current account surplus of 0.3 per cent and cap the national debt at 39.8 per cent by 2010-11. However, Brown’s luck finally ran out: instead of slipping gently into a new economic cycle, the economy fell into a deep hole. Economic growth did not slow down – it collapsed.

To summarise: in its first ten years Labour may have fiddled the books a bit, as all governments do, but it had certainly not created a mess. And it had built lots of hospitals and schools. The more honest charge is that New Labour overestimated the revenue flows it would go on receiving from a flaky financial services sector, whose largely unregulated expansion it had encouraged, and whose inherent instability it had ignored. But this is a judgement after the event. Most academic economists ignored the possibility of a financial crash. Nor did the Conservative opposition think the government’s finances were messed up in 2007. In September of that year, the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed that he would match Brown’s spending plans and that, “under a Conservative government, there will be real increases in spending on public services, year after year”.

The mess, if that is what it was, came in the two big slump years, 2008 and 2009. Owing to the collapse of its revenues and the additional spending on social security, public-sector net borrowing shot up from 2.7 per cent to 10.2 per cent of GDP. The cost  of bailing out banks added to a national debt that ballooned from 43.6 per cent of GDP pre-crash to 76.4 per cent by 2010.

In short, the big holes in the public finances inherited by the coalition when it took office were the result not of misguided splurging, but of the sudden emergence of deep craters in the British and world economy. This is confirmed by a 2011 IMF report, which calculated that of the 37 per cent increase in UK public debt from 2007-2011, 25 per cent was due to loss of revenues, 7 per cent to support of the financial sector and only about 2 per cent to fiscal stimulus. Furthermore, it’s true that the rise in the deficit was somewhat higher than the OECD average, but this was because British governments were more dependent on revenues from the financial services sector.

The Conservative charge of Labour profligacy boils down to the claim that Labour did not start cutting spending immediately it saw its revenues falling. But Conservative spokesmen have never honestly faced up to the question: what would have happened if the government had started cutting its spending with the economy in a tailspin?

Labour did what any sane and civilised government would have done in the circumstances (and which all other governments did): continue to support the economy as best it could to limit the damage caused by the collapse in private spending.

The Greek excuse

Enter the coalition and George Osborne. The British economic collapse bottomed out at the end of 2009 and the economy started growing modestly. Then came the Greek sovereign debt crisis and the switch to austerity. Osborne made the link explicit when he declared in his “emergency” Budget of June 2010 “you can see in Greece an example of a country that didn’t face up to its problems, and that is the fate that I want to avoid”. That austerity was the only way to avoid a British sovereign debt crisis remains the official defence of austerity to this day. As the Treasury minister Paul Deighton told the House of Lords only last month, “the markets would not have allowed us to continue with the scale of deficit we had”.

But Britain was not like Greece or any other country in the eurozone. Locked into a system of nation-state debt issuers without currency-creating powers, Greece and other eurozone debtors faced a dire choice between austerity and default. But with its own currency and its own “lender of last resort” central bank to backstop its bond issues, Britain had an extra margin of freedom (secured, ironically, by the Labour government when it decided not to join the single currency) to conduct a macroeconomic policy suited to the condition of its economy. Fiscal policy was not disabled by the bond markets as in the eurozone; there was no need for “an accelerated plan” to reduce the deficit. What did happen was that Osborne’s alarmist anti-Labour rhetoric talked influential commentators who should have known better into believing that Britain was on the road to deficit-fuelled ruin.

 

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So, why did Osborne do it? Historians will debate his motives but I believe that this intensely political Chancellor saw in a manufactured crisis of confidence a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to cut the size of the state. The view, long held by the neoliberal right, that state spending steals resources from the productive economy, was repackaged for the purposes of austerity as the doctrine that government spending was “crowding out” more efficient private-sector spending and therefore damaging recovery: a restatement of the Treasury view of the 1920s, which Keynes exploded with a common-sense argument – in a slump, increased government spending does not take resources from the private sector: it brings into use resources that are idle.

From his theoretical ragbag, Osborne constructed a consummate political narrative that linked folklore economics (“the government can’t spend money it hasn’t got”) to the politics of blame (“cleaning up the mess left by Labour”) to the politics of fear (“the Greek bogey”) to grand economic strategy (“reducing the deficit is a necessary condition for sustained recovery”).

There is no doubt that, aside from his basic instincts, Osborne received some very bad economic advice. “Unless we deal with debts there will be no growth,” he declared in June 2010. This echoed the briefly fashionable views of two American economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, who claimed that if the ratio of public debt to GDP rose above 90 per cent, growth would go into reverse. Their headline finding was quickly discredited but Osborne said that they were the economists who most influenced him.

Another argument briefly called into use in 2010 was the theory of “expansionary fiscal consolidation”. The theory was that the boost to business confidence given by cutting welfare benefits would more than offset their contractionary effects on demand. Indeed, its main advocate, Alberto Alesina of Bocconi University in Milan, assured European finance ministers at a meeting in Madrid in April 2010 that not only would a “credible policy of fiscal consolidation” boost growth but it would do so quickly.

The failure of the “Alesina effect” to materialise in those European countries that were unwise enough to try out his remedies should have discredited austerity as a recovery policy. For nearly three years following Osborne’s 2010 deficit-cutting Budget, the British economy stagnated. The Chancellor forecast an average GDP growth of 2.7 per cent between 2011 and 2013. Actual growth in the period was 1.3 per cent. Austerity’s supporters blame the stagnation on “headwinds” – the continuing eurozone crisis, higher oil prices – but the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), the watchdog that Osborne himself set up to monitor his performance, disagrees. Austerity, it says, reduced GDP growth by 1 per cent in 2010-11 and a further 1 per cent in 2011-12.

Extrapolating these OBR figures puts the cumulative cost of austerity since 2010 at 5 per cent of GDP. Some leading economists, including Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University, consider 10-15 per cent a more realistic figure. That means between 5 and 15 per cent of British output has been permanently lost. The lowest estimate, 5 per cent, indicates £100bn, or £1,500 for every citizen. The truth is that austerity stopped the recovery in 2010 and caused the economy and society unnecessary damage.

Growth’s failure to materialise dished the Chancellor’s five-year timetable for cutting borrowing. With government revenues failing to recover, Osborne quietly slowed down the speed of his cuts, eventually declaring that a further £35bn of consolidation would be needed in the next parliament. The Bank of England injected a further £175bn into the economy between October 2011 and July 2012. In 2012, the government started subsidising bank lending for mortgages through its “Help to Buy” scheme. The shaky recovery that the easing of austerity brought about in 2013 made possible the Chancellor’s rhetorical masterstroke: we are growing faster than any country in Europe. This shows austerity works!

 

Labour’s weakness

Conservative rhetoric has left Labour floundering. The Conservatives have been able to take the narrative of the crisis away from Labour and turn their disastrous economic stewardship to political advantage. Their surprising weakness in the polls suggests their story is not entirely believed. This may yet enable Labour to form a minority government. Osborne does not deserve another go. He has done his best and worst.

Could Labour have done better? Its first, and probably decisive failure, was in mounting a convincing defence of its own record. Yet there was much to be proud of and particularly in the crisis years of 2008-2010 – the very years in which, according to the Conservatives, they messed up the public finances. In fact, the Labour government’s decent and principled reluctance to cut public spending in the crisis years was what kept the economy going; to which must be added Gordon Brown’s exceptional leadership in co-ordinating the global recovery effort in 2009. But the chance to establish this as the story of the crisis was missed; and after the electorate had given its verdict in 2010, it could not be resurrected politically.

Once Osborne had put his strategy for recovery into place, it would have required not only exceptional rhetorical skill to have countered it, but economic understanding of a high order. The Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, a professional economist, has shown how important it is to have at least one political leader who combines rhetorical power with a solid knowledge of macroeconomics. For Varoufakis has the knowledge and confidence to confront the banalities that pass for economic wisdom in the temples of power and finance. Has anyone in these august places, one wonders, heard of the paradox of thrift? But no one in the post-2010 Labour leadership could have done that job except the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, and his inability or unwillingness to make a decisive attack weakened Labour’s intellectual firepower and in effect let Osborne get away with it. It is pretty scandalous that it is left to the SNP to make the case Labour should have been making.

The opposition to austerity was also weakened by a factor outside Labour’s control, namely the rapid reassertion of macroeconomic orthodoxy in treasuries, central banks, international organisations such as the IMF and much economic journalism, following their brief flirtation with Keynesianism in 2008-2009. Why, after the economies of the world had fallen into a hole, did these people start turning their guns on the governments that had rescued their economies from another Great Depression? That is something historians and political analysts will have to puzzle out.

One baleful consequence of the return to orthodoxy was that the statistical basis for policymaking was consistently slanted in the wrong direction. There was a systematic underestimate of spare capacity in the period 2010-11 and a systematic overoptimism about growth prospects.

Keynes said: “When statistics do not make sense, I find it generally wiser to prefer sense to statistics.” Common sense should have told policymakers that the financial system and economy had been deeply damaged by the crash of 2008 and needed a very strong stimulus from government to avoid years of waste and stagnation. Prudence should now tell policymakers that the promise to cut the welfare state to the bone will not only inflict further economic damage but cause social resentment on a scale not seen since the 1980s.

Little of this common sense of the matter has emerged so far in the general election. The Conservatives have spun their familiar yarn of rescuing Britain from “Labour’s Great Recession”, restoring “confidence” by borrowing less, pledging to start “paying down debt”. Labour has mostly tried to be plus royaliste que le roi: it will “cut the deficit” every year; it will impose a “Budget Responsibility Lock” to stop governments fiddling the accounts. More promisingly, it will set up a “British Investment Bank” but has said nothing about its funding or powers. Perhaps the voters will see through Labour’s disordered head to its humane heart. But with so little to choose between the big parties on the main issue of the day, it is not surprising that the election remains too close to call.

Robert Skidelsky is a cross-bench peer and a leading biographer of J M Keynes. His most recent book is “Britain Since 1900: a Success Story?” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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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.

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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.

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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?”

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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