Tabloids, Killers and the Interests of the Public

Today’s revelations that the, now defunct, News of the world tasked one of their journalists to become a prison officer so as to gather information on a child-murderer ( may have shocked many but was no huge surprise to those who have observed the many recent trials relating to alleged corruption in the tabloid press.

Since 2013 court hearings have revealed the obsession the tabloid press had with notorious killers, especially those who murdered children, an obsession that created a culture of illegal payments to prison staff, and subterfuge on an industrial scale. However as the how is becoming clearer understanding the why seems as far away as ever.

The first inkling we got of scale of these actions was in 2013 when former News of the World and Sun editor Rebekah Brooks was asked why the name and details of Ian Huntley, who killed two schoolchildren in Soham Cambridgeshire in 2002, was in the notebook of a private investigator working for the newspaper. Brooks replied that it was common practice for journalists to try and become “pen friends” of notorious killers to gather information for stories. While Brooks herself seemed almost blasé about the practice, I was not the only person in court shocked at the notion of newspapers pretending to befriend and comfort some of the worst criminals in our society, but more was to emerge as further trials unfolded at London’s Old Bailey.

One prominent example of the lengths the tabloid press would go to to get child-killer stories was that of Jon Venables. In 1993 one of the most horrific murders in British criminal history occurred on Merseyside in when 2 year old James Bulger’s tortured and mutilated body was found beside a railway line near his home. It quickly emerged that his killers , Jon Venables and Robert Thomson were children themselves, only 10 years old at the time of the crime, making them the youngest people to be convicted of murder in modern English history. A mob attempted to attack the prison van taking them to jail as they left court, after being sentenced to custody until they reached the age of 18,. The pair were then released with new identities and a judge passed a worldwide injunction banning any reporting of their new names because “there was a real and strong possibility that their lives would be at risk,” if their identities became known.”

The press did not dare to break the legal restrictions laid upon them. When The Manchester Evening News published details that suggested the names of the secure institutions in which the pair were housed, it was fined £30,000 and ordered to pay legal costs of £120,000. However in 2010 Venables was re-arrested on child pornography charges and after a trial, in which he appeared by video link only visible to the judge, was returned to jail. Journalists took the view that this  allowed them to write about Venables as his treatment in jail had now become “in the public interest.” The feeding frenzy began.

Fleet St reporters began chasing every story they could find about Jon Venables, especially any highlighting his alleged “cushy treatment” in jail. They struck gold after a officer at the prison in which he was held allegedly called a national newspaper with complaints about the “special treatment” Venables was receiving. The officer, who cannot be named for legal reasons, is accused of making tens of thousands of pounds selling stories to The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Star and the Sunday Mirror about Venables while another was convicted f being paid by a newspaper just for providing details of the lawyers that were visiting him in prison. Sentencing him the judge asked why a newspaper would be interested in that information? no answer was ever forthcoming.

When you ask journalists about this they tend to always give you the same answer, the stories were in the “public interest.” This has also been their argument in court when a number of reporters have been prosecuted for paying prison officers and has, in every case led to the jury acquitting them.

The question though is this, is the press really just serving a public interest in these cases or creating one, with prurient and sensationalist stories designed merely to create outrage and sell more newspapers? The Leveson inquiry has often been credited, or blamed, for reining in the tabloid press. Today’s revelations however show however just how far they were willing to go to get a story and only the future will show if they are willing to go so far again.