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Police chief warns editors on potential murder trial prejudice

Suffolk’s police chief, Alastair McWhirter, is warning editors not to publisher material that could hinder the investigation of five murders near Ipswich.

He said identification issues could be key to any future conviction and that a trial could be prejudiced by what the media reports.

The Chief Constable sent a letter to editors saying: “I would remind you that legal proceedings are now active in respect of the investigation into the deaths of five women in Suffolk.

“We would ask that the media do not publish any material that may hinder the investigation, especially where identification might be an issue, or may prejudice the right of anyone to a fair trial at a future date.

“The Editor who chooses to make public any material that prejudices the right of any potential defendant to a fair trial, will carry a heavy burden, should that person be acquitted as a consequence of the prejudice.

“I put you on notice that Suffolk Constabulary will take all necessary legal steps to ensure the integrity of all future legal proceedings.”

Ipswich Star editor Nigel Pickover said his paper has not and would not be publishing pictures of the first man arrested.

He said: “It is important to state that the two men now in police custody remain as suspects.

“It is important to stress that identification may be an issue in this case.

“The Evening Star took a decision, based on legal advice, not to publish a picture of the first man arrested, Tom Stephens.

“We hold to that decision and will not be swayed by what the national TV and newspaper pack does.”

He added: “The media army is still camped here and requests for interviews with The Evening Star have grown – particularly since Suffolk Police press conferences are now strict affairs, with a short statement given and no questions taken.”

McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists says Contempt of Court “…is possible [even months] before a trial, especially in assuming the guilt of the accused, in disclosing his previous convictions or other information derogatory of him, or in the publication of a photograph of him if identity is to be an issue at his trial or at a police identity parade”.

Society of Editors executive director Bob satchwell, speaking on Radio Five Live, reminded listeners that that juries took their duty ‘very, very seriously’, despite potentially being faced with a risk of being influenced by the media.

He said: “The judge will tell the jury that they must decide the case on the basis of what they hear in court.

“I think most journalists will tell you of cases where the only explanation for an unexpected decision by the jury was that they had taken their duties very seriously indeed.

“In a sensational case like this one, it’s very difficult for the media not to report it, because you can’t suddenly go from huge headlines to absolutely nothing.

“In my experience as an editor, you often get more complaints from the public when you stop reporting. When reporting restrictions come into force, the public is left asking ‘what’s happened to this huge story?’ It goes quiet for a year or 18 months until the trial, and it is hard for the public to see why that should be.

“When an arrest in made, everyone is desperately hoping that the police will make a breakthrough – that’s precisely the time when the public is itching for every last piece of information.”

He said there were other issues to take on board, such as reporting by global media via the internet.

Bob said: “The contempt laws in this country need to be looked at again, because we live in an age of global media.

“This is where there can be a risk of prejudice, because anyone – including juries – can read about such cases on the internet, even if the UK media is not allowed to publish anything further.”

The Press Complaints Commission has taken the opportunity to clarify the position regarding the role of the press in offering inducements to potential witnesses.

“For the avoidance of doubt”, it cites the relevant part of the Editors’ Code of Practice: “No payment or offer of payment to a witness – or any person who may reasonably be expected to be called as a witness – should be made in any case once proceedings are active as defined by the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

“This prohibition lasts until the suspect has been freed unconditionally by police without charge or bail or the proceedings are otherwise discontinued; or has entered a guilty plea to the court; or, in the event of a not guilty plea, the court has announced its verdict.”

There is no public interest defence to this part of the Code.

The statement reminds editors that “in the Suffolk case, proceedings are clearly now active”.

The Code was considerably strengthened in 2003 to make the position unequivocal.

  • The Somebody’s Daughter memorial fund has been launched by The Evening Star and Ipswich Borough Council in the wake of the deaths of the five women, who were all prostitutes.