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Forget the endless Jack the Ripper programmes, whatever happened to investigative journalism?

Documentaries exposing real miscarriages of justice have virtually disappeared from our TV screens. PAUL DONOVAN asks why

WHAT has happened to miscarriage of justice programmes — have they been replaced by history mystery? 

How would the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four get on these days, with the vista of miscarriages of justice having virtually disappeared from our TV screens?

Maybe they would have had to wait 100 years or so in order that their cases could be examined by “experts” of some future generation, looking back with the benefit of hindsight and new investigative techniques.

The thought occurred to me recently when watching Jack the Ripper — The Case Reopened, presented by Silent Witness actress Emilia Fox. 

A real case of fact meeting fiction as it were, with a team of police and lawyers looking at the case 130 years-plus after it occurred. An entertaining bit of television but I did wonder, who cares, what is the point?

The Jack the Ripper programme did not stand alone. The series Murder, Mystery and my Family looks back at historic cases using modern forensic techniques. 

Lawyers play a part then the case goes to a crown court judge for adjudication. Again, entertaining but what about the programmes about the innocent people amongst the record 82,000 prison population?

Miscarriages of justice were a more popular media genre back in the 1980s and ’90s. The whole idea of innocent people being convicted was largely unheard of until the four individuals wrongly convicted of the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 (Guildford Four) were released in 1989. 

Their success came about largely due to a combination of a tenacious legal team, an effective campaign and some excellent investigative journalism both in print and broadcast media.

Two years after the Guildford Four were released came the Birmingham Six (the six men wrongly convicted in 1974 of the Birmingham pub bombings), who had the same combination but maybe even more of a contribution from the media. 

The excellent work of journalist Chris Mullin, investigating the case and ITV World in Action’s Who Bombed Birmingham? to name but two.

This time saw the BBC commission the Rough Justice series, which devoted some serious investigative resources to examine cases. 

Between 1982 and 2007, Rough Justice helped get 18 victims of wrongful convictions released. Channel 4’s Trial and Error ran for five years from 1992, helping get 15 wrongful convictions overturned.

Media commentator Roy Greenslade recalled Rough Justice being dropped for budgetary reasons. 

“Given its success rate, that was a cowardly decision by our public service broadcaster when carrying out, well, a public service.
“I agree that investigative work is costly. It’s a lengthy process and labour intensive. Sorting our inevitable legal problems is also a drain on resources. But I have always wondered, without any proof, whether the BBC faced other pressures,” said Greenslade, who believes the demise of Trial and Error was for similar cost reasons, claiming that “broadcasters have fled from confrontation with the justice system in the UK.”

The establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) in 1997 largely came out of the miscarriages of justice. 

It was no doubt seen as the answer from the government of the day’s view. It would seem broadcasters took a similar line.
Peter Hill, the founder and producer of Rough Justice, credits the lack of money and the arrival of the CCRC as contributing to the demise of miscarriage of justice programmes. 

The latter, he said, meant that miscarriage of justice cases were seen as “being dealt with.”

He also believes there was “no money from the TV stations because of government influence and a lack of investigative experience in journalists.”

Some 1,500 prisoners apply to the CCRC to have their cases looked into each year. There were 19 cases referred back in 2018 to the Court of Appeal by the CCRC — 12 the previous year. 

Of the 658 cases referred by the CCRC over its 22-year history 437 have been allowed, 198 dismissed.

But there still remain a lot of innocent people in the prison system. A prisoner with a good lawyer, media exposure and a support campaign must have a better chance of achieving justice by the CCRC route as much as any other. 

And what of the fascination with old cases, where all involved have long since departed this world? Entertaining television, yes, but not investigative journalism.

Greenslade makes the point forcefully about the need for proper investigative journalism to look into real live contemporary cases.  

“There isn’t a better justification for investigative and campaigning journalism than freeing someone wrongly convicted of a crime,” said Greenslade.

The BBC doesn’t accept that it no longer produces programmes that examine potential miscarriages of justice. 

“Recent documentaries which examined the evidence around murder convictions include Conviction: Murder at the Station and Conviction: Murder in Suburbia, the BBC Three series Unsolved: The Man with no Alibi and The Chillenden Murders on BBC Two,” said a BBC spokesperson. 

“We are also following the Sally Challen case for a documentary, while BBC News and Current Affairs continues to look at miscarriages of justice and wider issues surrounding the justice system across its output, including a recent Panorama which examined whether the Criminal Cases Review Commission is fit for purpose.”

What is for sure is that there remain many innocent prisoners incarcerated in the prison system. Surely it would be better for all concerned if they were freed, and very much part of the public service remit if the likes of the BBC play a role in that process of liberation. 

More so for sure than devoting so much resource into historically interesting but largely irrelevant questions such as who was Jack the Ripper?


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