Mark Lawson: Remember Colin Stagg

Media antics in Ipswich risk not just contempt of court but contempt for suspects' future lives

Some years ago, while driving in the middle of the night through a county in which a series of rapes had occurred, I was tuned to local radio for traffic news when a phone-in presenter suddenly exclaimed: "Phew! Women will sleep easier in their beds now because we've just heard that the police have got him! They've caught the rapist!"

The hostess then handed over to a crime reporter at police HQ, who, audibly swallowing hard, interjected: "We are, of course, only reporting at this stage that a suspect has been arrested. He has not, of course, yet been charged and there is no proof of any wrongdoing."

Relieved text messages were presumably soon sent to the man on the scene for saving the night and keeping the managing editor out of jail for contempt of court. But that was a temporary victory for law and responsible reporting. The "Phew! They've got him!" school of journalism seems to have triumphed in much of the reporting of the five Suffolk murders.

Although they were merely participating in a process that does not inevitably lead to charges, the characters, habits and deeply personal experiences of two men arrested have been published and discussed at a level that - even two years ago - would only have followed conviction and imprisonment. The voice of one man was broadcast after his arrest on the 6pm BBC1 news, in an interview recorded for background the previous week.

I'm not advocating a return to the time when the reporting of arrests would be limited to the fact that "a 48-year-old man is helping the police with their inquiries". Fragmentation and democratisation of the media make anonymity of suspects impossible. Even if the press and broadcasters observed the old omerta imposed by the attorney general, a neighbour or relative of the arrested would be able, without practical censure, to post their identity on a website or blog.

Indeed the internet is central to this crisis in crime investigation. The new liberties being taken in reporting on suspects are not primarily driven by journalistic irresponsibility but by the vastly increased availability of information.

As was demonstrated by this week's cases, the average Briton now leaves a massive data footprint; one of the Suffolk suspects had both a personal website and a entry. Relatives, friends and former wives were immediately traceable through school reunion and directory-information sites. People involved in public controversies now, like crashed planes, leave a computer trace - a personal black box - showing everything that led them there. In a culture in which people so willingly surrender so much privacy, it's hard to impose anonymity when emergency circumstances occur.

Prominent lawyers and journalists argue that this visibility of the not-yet-guilty doesn't matter. The slowness of the British legal system means that, if suspects become defendants, their trials will occur at least a year after the publicity splurge, by which time what was read or seen will either have been forgotten or should be ignorable.

This reassuring answer, though, is addressing the wrong question. What is at issue in the publicising of suspects is not contempt of court but contempt for future life. Two words should be written on the cover of the notebook of every editor and reporter covering the Suffolk killings. They are Colin Stagg.

For more than a decade, he was generally assumed in media coverage to be guilty of a gruesome murder on Wimbledon Common, despite the inconvenient failure of any charges to stick. By the time he was cleared of involvement, the media hunting of the aptly named Stagg had caused great pyschological cost to him, and the financial cost to the taxpayer of compensation.

Imagine that either of the men arrested in Suffolk is eventually released without charge. He would become another Stagg, already convicted in the court of public no-appeal of being an oddball, an imperfect partner, somebody whose lifestyle throws up so much smoke that there really must be some fire there somewhere, mustn't there? - although officially he would be, of course, utterly innocent.

Perhaps, as Colin Stagg did, he would give interviews or, the technology having advanced since Stagg's case, blog or webcast his innocence, seeking to regain his reputations by the ruinous method of exposing it to further scrutiny.

The biggest worry now is that any charges that ensue will be seen as vindicating the post-arrest coverage. But every case is different, and the change in reporting rules will eventually ensure another Stagg elsewhere.

These are not simple issues, a matter of goody-goody journalists versus bad ones. The legal system and the media need new procedures to deal with a culture of information-trail and self-publicising. But a situation in which off-the-record interviews are broadcast, and private incidents are emblazoned on the front pages, assumes that suspects have no rights at all: a Guantánamo Bay attitude that will one day, if not now, have terrible consequences.



Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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