The Today programme revisited
Friday, 6 February 2004;
ON THURSDAY MORNING
the 6.5 million people who regularly tune into BBC Radio 4's
Today programme were left in little doubt that there had been a
dramatic development within the criminal justice system. The importance of
this development seemed clear from the fact that it was the second
item in the news bulletins which were broadcast periodically throughout
Those who listened to these bulletins learned that the Criminal Cases
Review Commission (CCRC) was re-opening as many as 120 cases involving
care workers who had been convicted as a result of police trawling
operations. It was going to re-examine these cases in order to establish
whether or not the convictions were safe.
Working together with a group of solicitors, the Historical Abuse
Appeal Panel, the CCRC was apparently taking an unprecedented initiative.
The impression was given that it was the major protagonist in a formal
re-examination of all such convictions which it would be reviewing rather
in the manner that convictions arising from the expert evidence of Sir Roy
Meadow are currently being scrutinised. One lawyer was quoted as saying
that it was extremely unusual for the CCRC to be 'so pro-active'.
For the families and friends of many innocent former care
workers who have been wrongly convicted, this news must have
come as a tremendous relief. For the small number of
politicians who have shown an interest in the problem of
police trawling, and have expressed concern about its dangers,
the news will have been most welcome. And for many chief
constables and prosecutors it may well have been worrying.
Such reactions could only be reinforced by a story later that
day in the
Evening Standard. The
story, by Patrick Sawer, began: 'Carers
and teachers who have consistently proclaimed their innocence
of child abuse allegations had their hopes lifted today with
the announcement of a review of more than 100 cases.' The
story, which went on to draw a parallel with the cot death
cases involving Sir Roy Meadow, was clearly based on that
morning's Today programme report and would in its turn
have been read by millions of Londoners.
However, a week after the Today programme had been
severely criticised by Lord Hutton for inaccurate journalism, there was only one problem
with its seemingly authoritative news item.
It was not true.
Reactions at the CCRC, which immediately telephoned Today
attempt to correct the story, varied. One CCRC member of staff
described the suggestion that they had instituted an inquiry
as 'complete nonsense'. Another described the BBC headline as
'poetic licence journalism'.
The second of these reactions is probably the fairer of the
two in that it suggests that there was at least a grain of
truth in the BBC's claim.
The CCRC certainly had some involvement in helping
the Today programme, and in particular its home affairs
correspondent Danny Shaw, put together an item about police
trawling. The focus of the item was the
Anver Sheikh appeal and
the co-operation between the CCRC and the
Historic Abuse Appeals Panel
set up by Sheikh's solicitor Mark Newby. This consisted in a
professed willingness on both sides to help
each other and to exchange information about links between cases.
The CCRC had said to the BBC, quite accurately, that this kind
of co-ooperation was 'unprecedented'. One of its officials had
also apparently spoken of an intention to 'investigate' the
cases in question.
It may well have been such comments which led the Today programme
to the view that it would be a good idea to ramp the story up by creating
a news headline to go with it. Since the Historic Abuse
Appeals Panel had already collected some 120 cases, and since
the CCRC was co-operating with the panel, somebody seems to
have drawn the inference that all these cases were being
This inference was untrue. In due course the CCRC might examine and refer to the Court of
Appeal some of the cases collected by the Historic Abuse
Appeals Panel, just as they might refer any other case which
was brought to them by an individual solicitor. But there was
never any question of there being an automatic re-opening of
all the cases. Perhaps
because it made Today's journalism seem much more
exciting and agenda-setting than it might otherwise have
appeared, however, the incorrect inference was actually inserted into the
main news bulletin in order to become its second item.
The idea that the CCRC was reopening 120 'historical abuse'
cases was thus not only news to the nation; it was news to the
CCRC. It may well be the case that this number of care home
cases ought to be re-examined. Concerned lawyers have
long expressed the view that upwards of 100 care workers may
have been wrongly convicted as a result of such methods. As
the Today programme reported, their concerns were
broadly endorsed by the 2002 Home Affairs Committee inquiry
which expressed the view that police methods of investigation
had brought about 'a new genre of miscarriages of justice'.
The cases now being dealt with by the Historic Abuse Appeals
Panel, however, are varied in their nature. As has already
been noted in an earlier article here, many of the 120 cases
notified to the HAAP are family rather than care home cases.
Of the 50 or so which are the product of police trawling, some
have yet to come to trial and others, where convictions have
been obtained, have not yet been through the appeal process
and would therefore be ineligible for any examination by the
CCRC. Currently there are only about 25 care home cases which
might be suitable for the CCRC to add to the 20 or so it is
already examining. Any 're-opening' of these 25 cases,
however, lies in the future. As in all cases which are
investigated by the CCRC, this will only happen if there are
new grounds on which to base a second appeal.
All this the Today programme could easily have found
out had it asked the right questions. It did not do so, and it
would appear that whoever wrote the news story (which was
presumably not Danny Shaw, whose piece was largely accurate)
was more concerned with promoting one of Today's
own reports, than ensuring that the headline used in order
to do this was strictly accurate.
That this should have happened within a week or so of the
publication of the Hutton report, which was itself occasioned
by a Today programme reporter failing to check his
facts and drawing unwarranted inferences, is surprising.
Nobody would suggest that the two instances of lax journalism
are of the same order of seriousness. But perhaps this
further instance of careless journalism provides an example of how Lord Hutton, by
producing such a one-sided report, has actually made it
difficult for BBC journalists to respond positively to
criticisms of the Today programme which, in a
number of cases at least, are actually well-founded.
From the point of view of those campaigning to get more
publicity for the injustices which trawling has led to, the
BBC's untrue news item may actually have had - in the short term
at least - a positive effect. The immediate result was a rash
of stories in Friday's national press which might not
otherwise have appeared with such prominence. But you can cry
'wolf' only so often. The next time there is a real story to
report, the reaction of national newspaper journalists might
well be more cautious. As it was, the only reason that the
reports which appeared were generally accurate was that the CCRC's press officer, Boris Worrall, spent most of Thursday
morning in conversation with journalists in an effort to undo
the effects of the misinformation broadcast by the BBC (and
echoed by the Evening Standard). This
did not stop the news editor of one national newspaper from
rebuking a journalist, who had filed an accurate report, for
supposedly missing the 'real' story.
That in this instance it was the Today programme which
spread misleading information seems particularly unfortunate given
that the line taken by Danny Shaw's report was generally a
helpful one. Shaw's report compared very favourably with some earlier Today
reports on related subjects. Following an agenda of slipshod
'trouble-making' journalism which was partly set for it by its
former editor Rod Liddle, Today has in the past
shown too little regard for the innocent victims of paeodophile witch-hunts and far too much interest in
intensifying a witch-hunting atmosphere - particularly in
relation to the Catholic church. The one-sided reports filed
by former Radio 5 journalist Angus Stickler, who was
reportedly recruited to
the Today programme by Liddle 'to cause trouble for the
Roman Catholic church' provide an example of this unfortunate
Given this legacy of bad reporting on one of the most
difficult and sensitive issues there is, the fact that
Today should now have turned its attention to the many
miscarriages of justice which have resulted from police
trawling is in itself to be welcomed. What is now needed, is
journalism in which real investigative resources are deployed
over a period of weeks - and if necessary months - in order
uncover what is really happening in police trawling operations
and the miscarriages of justice which result from them.
If the BBC were to engage in this kind of journalism then the
topic of police trawling would not be the second item on its
news bulletins. It would be the first. And it would deserve to
© Richard Webster, 2004