08:28, February 21 191 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-21 08:28:06
In the 25 years since Fred and Rose West, crime reporting has collapsed

It is 25 years since the remains of the victims of Fred and Rose West were first discovered at their Gloucester home. This week an ITV documentary presented by Trevor McDonald will return to the case while an updated book on the case by Howard Sounes, who first covered the story as a Sunday Mirror reporter, has just been published. When Rose West eventually stood trial and was convicted of 10 murders at Winchester crown court in 1995 – Fred having hanged himself in his cell – every national newspaper covered the case daily for its seven weeks’ duration, as I did for the Guardian. That level of coverage of even such a major trial would be unthinkable today.

One of the key findings of the Cairncross review on journalism which was published last week was that the coverage of trials had declined dramatically. It quoted a study carried out by Brian Thornton at Winchester University that, in the four years from 2012 to 2016, court reporting had dropped by 30% in the national newspapers and by 40% in regional newspapers. It also noted that the former lord chief justice, Lord Igor Judge, saw this decline as “a threat to the justice system”. Justice needs to be seen to be done, he argued, and without regular court reporting that no longer happens. (As the late Peter Cook once remarked, justice sometimes needs to be seen to be believed, but that’s another matter.) Another study by Gordon Ramsay and Martin Moore, published in 2016, also found “mounting evidence … that courts are being less attended and less reported on than they were”.

Does it matter? Wasn’t such coverage often sensationalist and prurient? There may have been occasions when gratuitous details were highlighted but yes, it does matter a lot. There was a time when national newspapers had their own reporter dedicated to covering courts, but those days are long gone. Tristan Kirk, who diligently reports on trials for London’s Evening Standard, told the Society of Editors’ conference last year that the Old Bailey and Southwark crown court were now the only courts still well-attended by journalists in the capital and cited six crown courts around London that received “no coverage whatsoever”. The Press Association and a small number of agencies fight a gallant battle to keep us informed, but they are stretched and often find that newspapers are uninterested in anything but the beginnings and ends of big cases.

At the Old Bailey in the last few of months of last year there were six simultaneous murder trials under way, all interesting and revealing in their different ways, all concerned with fatal stabbings, and the press benches were empty most days. There is no shortage of commentators writing about crime and the causes of crime, but such space would often be better served by an accurate report on how such offences happen in the first place and how they are investigated, prosecuted, defended, judged and punished.

The situation is worst for local and regional papers. A day in any magistrates court is as illuminating on the state of the nation in terms of homelessness, mental health, immigration, drug-taking, alcohol abuse, race, domestic violence and poverty as any lengthy thinktank report. Once reports from these court were an essential ingredient of every local paper. No more. Last month it emerged that, since 2010, half of the magistrates courts in England and Wales – 162 of the 323 – have been closed, making reporting less likely and justice more remote.

A couple of decades ago, public galleries in major trials were often full. Now even in major cases they, like the press benches, are usually empty. With people so uninformed about what is happening to those accused of crimes, no wonder there is little fuss about the fact that our prisons are ridiculously overcrowded, that we jail more people than any other country in Europe with the exception of Turkey, that our probation service has been seriously damaged by Chris Grayling’s irresponsible decision to privatise parts of it and that cuts in legal aid have been disastrous for many defendants.

The West case taught us much about the kind of place that Britain had become: a land where young women could disappear without trace and where a married couple with many children could get away with murder because no one would believe that they might be responsible for such horrendous events. The Wests’ first grim offence, the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl in 1972, was dealt with only by a fine at the magistrates court but at least it was reported. Today it would almost certainly go unremarked. The Cairncross review has suggested some ways in which this deficit can be addressed. A remedy is urgently required. An uninformed country, as we are becoming increasingly aware, is an ignorant country and just as ignorance is no defence in law, nor should it be for the parlous state of our criminal justice system.

Duncan Campbell was the Guardian’s crime correspondent for more than 20 years

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