The Daily Mail and ‘Facebook juror’ Joanna Fraill have a lot in common

Leave a comment

You might think that having her inane, sub-teenage, Facebook exchanges made public (‘It’ll be over tomoz fingers crossed , im not as daft as am cabbage looking hahaha’; ‘awe fuck nos hw a didn’t get caught viv my nods and blinks’) would be punishment enough for any 40-year-old woman.

However, the judge in the trial of the ‘Facebook juror’, Joanna Fraill, sentenced her to eight months in prison for contempt, after she contacted a defendant in a drugs trial, via the social networking site.It’s hard to have much sympathy for Ms Fraill. She knew that she shouldn’t contact the defendant, Jamie Sewart, and that she was jeopardising the whole trial (‘pleeeeeese don’t say anything cause jamie they could call mmiss trial and I will get 4cked too’). Unsurprisingly, the judge wanted to make an example of her – not least to deter any other jurors who might be equally cavalier about their use of the internet.

No doubt, the case will be seized on by critics of the jury system as evidence that jurors can’t be trusted not to Google the names of defendants or witnesses (or, in the case of Ms Fraill, become their friend on Facebook and get into a discussion about ongoing deliberations).

The reality is rather more complex. There is nothing new about jurors’ bad behaviour scuppering trials; the internet just gives them new (and admittedly powerful) tools for doing so. In the infamous 1994 ‘ouija board’ trial, where jurors attempted to contact the murder victim to ask who had killed him, they used an upturned glass and a pack of cards (or whatever a ouija board entails), rather than a search engine, but the principle remains the same. (As an aside: one of the lawyers involved in the ouija board case commented to me about the jurors’ abject stupidity: given that the murder victim was known to be a habitual liar, why did they expect him to be any more truthful dead than alive?)

A friend proudly told me recently that when she did jury service years ago, she made a point of driving past the junction where the incident in question took place. She was horrified to be told that, what she thought was exceptional diligence was technically contempt of court. Another friend recounts that the judge in his case had specifically warned jurors that, during the course of the trial, they should not visit the nightclub where the alleged assault had taken place.

Clearly, some judges are better than others at issuing timely and clear warnings to jurors who may be tempted to do a little extra homework on their case.

What the debate about jurors and the internet invariably fails to recognise is that the quality of information they are provided with generally is lamentable. When I did jury service half a dozen years ago, on the first day we were all shown a court service video, presumably explaining what to expect. I say ‘presumably’, because the sound didn’t work and it was hard to tell from the pictures what the video was actually about.

Another friend, an experienced civil lawyer whose only experience of criminal justice was as a juror, was amazed to learn during our conversation that jurors are allowed to ask the judge questions about the case. She didn’t know and no one had told her during the trial.

If jurors are, indeed, routinely researching their cases on the internet, I suspect that this is more through lack of awareness, than malevolence. Lawyers and judges well understand the need for rules about admissibility of evidence and withholding prejudicial material – but for most ordinary people, the automatic assumption is that the more information they have, the better decision they will make.   In almost every other sphere of life now, before making any kind of decision – from which ironing board cover to buy, to whether to contact the person you met in a bar last night  – people use the internet as a matter of course.

Jurors who Google a defendant or look at his Facebook page will often be acting from exactly the same impulse – because internet research is what you do when you are being sensible and conscientious.   The courts have been slow to recognise that the huge cultural shift in the way people now access and use information was bound to affect what they do when they are jurors. Rather than just despairing at the potential of the internet to undermine trials, judges should make sure their jurors understand jury service is the one area where showing initiative and doing your own research is not to be applauded but, in fact, A Very Bad Thing (which could even land you in prison).

Ms Fraill was clearly stupid and reckless. She displayed absolute contempt for the trial, in the legal sense and in the way that most of us would understand the word. However, her contempt for the justice process is shared by much of the popular press.

Tabloid reporting of the criminal justice is invariably distorted, partial and almost wilfully inaccurate. The justice system is presented as a joke, where – through a combination of wily defence lawyers, judges who are too soft and out of touch, and political correctness gone mad –  the guilty walk free and the innocent are imprisoned.

As I write this blog, there just happen to be two headlines on the Daily Mail website which perfectly illustrate this point:

Mother who downed two litres of wine before driving her two children walks free from court

Shopkeeper who frogmarched teenage thief home to his father subjected to a TEN-MONTH court ordeal after police charge HIM with false imprisonment   

In case Daily Mail readers weren’t outraged enough by the shopkeeper story headline,the first paragraph of an early version of the Mail’s story made the completely bonkers claim that the ‘respected shopkeeper’ was ‘warned he could face life in jail’ for ‘frogmarching the boy back home’.

Where the tabloids are concerned, who cares that the only thing stolen was a bunch of grapes, or that the shopkeeper (however ‘respected’) didn’t actually see who took them (a detail edited out of later versions of the Daily Mail’s story)? Let’s gloss over the fact that he didn’t just ‘frogmarch’ a 15-year-old child, but chased him, caught him, put him in his car and then drove him home; forget the fact that the court’s punishment was not life in prison but a (rather more proportionate) £250 fine.

In the case of the drink-driving mother who was, in fact, banned from driving for two years and given a 12-month community service order, let’s give the impression she got off scot free with the (technically correct but misleading) headline that she ‘walked free from court’.

No one in their right mind would have any respect for the kind of court system portrayed in the tabloids – clearly, it deserves nothing but derision and, yes, contempt. Against this kind of backdrop, is it any wonder that the Ms Fraill didn’t take the judge’s warnings seriously and had no compunction about showing her own disdain for the court process?

An evening of comedy and tragedy leads to a fitting legacy


On 25 October last year, the campaigning group Women in Journalism (of which I am deputy chair) held its first-ever charity comedy evening at a theatre in Leicester Square.

The event – raising money for Z2K – was a great success, not least thanks to our compere, the incomparable with Sandi Toksvig. The only slight hitch was the late arrival of one WiJ committee member, Nathalie McDermott, who had planned to arrive in time to film video clips of the performers before they went on stage.

Sonia Burgess

Sonia Burgess: around 500 people, including leading lawyers, attended funeral

Nathalie had been held up at Kings Cross tube station because of a passenger under a train. Such incidents – which are mercifully rare – tend to be regarded by commuters as unfortunate, rather than remarkable, but what made this one particularly distressing, was that Nathalie had seen the woman fall on to the track. (In true ‘show-must-go-on’ fashion, Nathalie had found another route to the theatre and still managed to make her video blogs.)

I kept in touch with Nathalie over the next few days, as she was understandably shaken by what she’d witnessed – all the more so, when reports emerged that the victim hadn’t fallen accidentally, but had been pushed by a female companion (Nathalie had not seen the build up to the incident; only the fall itself). A murder charge was expected to follow.

The victim was identified as a transgender woman, Sonia Burgess. A little later, it emerged that Sonia was also David Burgess, probably the finest asylum solicitor of his generation – and, by remarkable coincidence, someone I had known well.

David had been one of my first and best contacts when I first started out as a legal affairs journalist in the late 1980s. His groundbreaking work was to be instrumental in developing asylum law as a distinct legal specialism, winning recognition for the special plight of refugees. (In one typically audacious move, he had the then Home Secretary held in contempt of court for failing to comply with a court order to stop a deportation.) Lawyers can be a competitive, critical lot – with those among their number blazing too many trails as likely to attract snarky comments as admiration – but you would have to go a long way to find anyone who would say anything negative about David. As one colleague put it when David announced he was bowing out from legal practice in 2003: ‘He was the lawyer we all wanted to be.’

In recent years, David had spent more and more time in his female persona and those close to him believe he was moving towards living as Sonia full time. However, at the time of his death, he still retained his male identity in his professional life (he had returned to legal work in the last couple of years). At Sonia’s funeral, attended by around 500 people, those (like me) who had only known David – former clients, lawyers and other professional colleagues – rubbed shoulders quite happily with family and those who had only known Sonia – friends (some transgender, some not), and other active members of Sonia’s church.

The calm and poignant way that Sonia’s life – in all its complexity and brilliance – was marked at the funeral was in stark contrast to the media’s prurient and salacious coverage of her death. (‘Tube death man was a lawyer called Sonia’; ‘Sex swap lawyer’s escort ad’.)

When it emerged that the woman who allegedly pushed Sonia was also transgender, the tabloids thought all their Christmases had come at once. Under the headline: ‘”Woman” accused of transgender Tube murder is actually a MAN undergoing a sex change,’ the Daily Mail reported gleefully that the accused, 34-year-old Nina Kanagasingham, appeared in court ‘unshaven’, and had been remanded to a men’s prison.

For both Nathalie and me, the episode was something of a paradigm shift: previously, the way our industry traduces transgender people had not been an issue we were particularly aware of, or – to be frank – much bothered about. However, the reductive and hurtful way that Sonia’s life and tragic death was being reported gave us pause.

Nathalie’s response was to contact Trans Media Watch – the body which monitors the way trans people are portrayed in the media and seeks to educate and inform journalists – and offer her services. (Nathalie runs On Road Media, providing training to charities and other groups on using new media to get their message across.) She has been working with TMW since January, to help trans people use social media more effectively to challenge media stereotyping and inform public opinion on the web.

Another consequence of Nathalie’s contact with the group, is that Women in Journalism is proud to have just become the second organisation (after Channel 4) to agree to sign TMW’s new Memorandum of Understanding, which seeks to improve the way trans people are treated in the media.

I like to think that Sonia – and David – would have approved.

It’s not just would-be bombers who tar lawyers with same brush as controversial clients

1 Comment

Among those associated with Celtic football club who were sent parcel bombs last month was Paul McBride QC, a leading Scottish criminal lawyer, based in Edinburgh.

Saimo Chahal coverage

Civil liberties lawyer Saimo Chahal was 'monstered' by tabloid press for acting for Yorkshire Ripper

McBride – who is known as a robust advocate – is a Celtic supporter but it seems that he may have been targeted with an explosive device by a loyalist organisation because he represented club manager Nigel Lennon at his recent ill-tempered Scottish FA disciplinary hearing.

Other recipients of the bombs – none of which exploded, mercifully – included Lennon himself, plus a former Labour MSP, and a republican group based in Glasgow.

It is perhaps not surprising that anyone deranged enough to send bombs through the public postal system might fail to understand the notion that an advocate should be seen as distinct from the causes he espouses professionally – however, passionately. But the Celtic case is by no means the first time that the crucial lines that mark the professional distance between lawyer and client have been blurred – sometimes by those who really should know better and with potentially deadly results.

In 1989, Belfast solicitor Patrick Finucane died after being shot 14 times by loyalist paramilitaries as he sat down to dinner with his wife and three children. Finucane was a respected civil liberties solicitor who came from a staunchly Republican family. He had successfully challenged the British government in a number of important human rights cases and his murder came less than a month after Home Office minister Douglas Hogg complained that some Northern Ireland solicitors were ‘unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA’ – comments which were widely construed as referring to Finucane. Hogg’s comments appeared to ignore the fact that Finucane had also acted for a number of loyalist clients.

With remarkable prescience, the SDLP’s Seamus Mallon’s immediate response to Hogg’s remarks was to warn that over-associating lawyers with their clients would put lives at risk. ‘I have no doubt there are lawyers walking the streets of the north of Ireland who have become targets for assassins’ bullets as result of the statement that has been made tonight,’ he said.

More recently, Saimo Chahal, civil liberties partner at Bindmans, was soundly monstered by the tabloids for having the temerity to act for Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire ripper, in his attempts to fix a possible release date tariff.  The level of vitriol (and misogyny) directed at Chahal for doing her job was unprecedented.

‘How could a WOMAN fight to win freedom for The Ripper?,’ thundered a five-deck headline in The Sun. ‘The Yorkshire Ripper is demanding to be freed, claiming his human rights have been infringed,’ it reported. Readers would be left ‘astonished a FEMALE lawyer is leading his fight.’

Many of the attacks were highly personal, singling out Chahal as the mother of a teenage daughter, and her photo was published alongside that of Sutcliffe and his 13 women victims (in the Daily Mail, her picture was four times the size of Sutcliffe’s). Probably most despicably, the Mail’s Richard Littlejohn suggested Chahal might be motivated, not by professionalism or the desire to establish human rights principles, but because she had a crush on Sutcliffe. Littlejohn likened her to ‘one of those madwomen who start writing to serial killers’ and end up marrying them. (Interestingly, the male barrister in the case, Paul Bowen, did not warrant a mention in any of the coverage.)

The response to the coverage was predictable enough, with Chahal receiving hate mail and threats from as far away as Australia.  As any good lawyer would, Chahal responded by insisting she would not be deterred from acting for other controversial clients (and her record since certainly suggests she has been as good as her word). However, other lawyers warned at the time that this kind of unprecedented media attack on a lawyer could only be insidious – particularly for those who don’t have the added buffer that comes with working at a large and well known law firm.

Imran Khan, who specialises in defending terrorism suspects, warned that the fear of a tabloid mauling could make lawyers reluctant to take on unpopular cases. Khan made his name acting for the family of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence, but has always been entirely clear that, in different circumstances, he could equally have ended up defending someone charged with Stephen’s killing.

An adversarial justice system depends upon lawyers being prepared to act to the absolute best of their ability for even the most loathsome of individuals – and the distinction between the lawyer and their client they represent should never be forgotten or misunderstood.

You wouldn’t expect a would-be bomber to care about such things, but the media and our political leaders certainly ought to – and should be sure to choose their words carefully in such instances.

The terror plot that never was

Leave a comment

On 8 January 2003, news of the so-called ‘ricin terror plot’ broke in the British media. Police had raided a flat in north London (dubbed ‘the factory of death’) and disrupted an Al-Qaeda cell, which had been making explosives, along with ricin and other lethal toxins, it was reported. The headlines could hardly have been more alarming or more unequivocal: ‘Ricin near Bin pal’s home,’ warned one tabloid.

Daily MirrorThe front page of another newspaper showed a skull and crossbones superimposed on a map of Britain, with the stark words: ‘IT’S HERE.’ The Health Secretary and Home Secretary issued a joint public statement about the find and the NHS warned the public not to panic. Not everyone took the NHS advice, as the BBC reported that gasmask sales had ‘soared’.

The manager of an army surplus shop was quoted as saying: ‘My niece lives in London and she and her husband took gasmasks down there. People are worried about the tube.’ What the media did not know was that they had been fed entirely wrong information: there was no ricin ‘here’ at all.

When government scientists had entered the Wood Green flat soon after the raid on 5 January, they had conducted a series of ‘presumptive tests’, looking for the presence of toxins. Most items tested came back negative – no evidence of poison. However, the result for a pestle and mortar was more interesting, indicating the possibility that ricin might be present.

Once back at the Porton Down laboratory, the scientists carried out a battery of further tests – all of which came back negative. Thus, just two days after the dramatic police raid – and the day before news of the ricin find made the headlines – it had been established definitively that no poison had been found.

The media were in good company in having been misled. Soon after the raid, Home Secretary David Blunkett and Health Secretary John Reid issued a joint statement claiming ‘traces of ricin’ and enough castor oil beans to make ‘one lethal dose’ had been discovered. Prime minister Tony Blair said it ‘shows this danger is present and real and with us now’. A few weeks later, in February, the US Secretary of State, Colin Powell, weighed in.

In a speech to the UN Security Council seeking its support for war on Iraq, he cited the London ricin find as evidence of the ‘sinister nexus’ between Al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein’s regime. It has never been explained how the initial false positive result came to be passed on to the media as fact. Nor is it clear why (despite the lurid news coverage generated), it took Porton Down a further thee months to tell the police or government that there was no ricin, after all.

The public and the media had to wait another two years to find out the truth, when it finally emerged in evidence at the Old Bailey trial that there never had been any ricin – and nor was there any plot. After a seven month trial, costing an estimated £20m, four of the five Algerian men who had been accused of plotting a campaign or poisoning and explosives, were acquitted. The fifth, who was already serving a life sentence for murdering a police officer, was convicted of conspiracy to cause a public nuisance.

Whether the potent misconception that ricin had been found arose as a result of accident or design, it was certainly useful to politicians trying to drum up support for an unpopular war and trying to curtail civil liberties in the fight against terrorism. In this, politicians were unwittingly aided by an unsceptical media, which preferred sensational headlines to searching questions. When the real picture emerged at the trial, the revelation that the media had been duped was barely covered.

It’s arguable that the early claims that ricin had been found had a distorting effect on the response of the authorities, media and public to the case right from the start. In such a heightened atmosphere, it was far more difficult to take a measured and objective view about what the finds at the flat actually signified. If it weren’t for these alarming false reports, it is entirely possible that the entire ricin plot trial would never have taken place.

Ricin! The inside story of the terror plot that never was (Pluto, 2010)

Simon Cowell! As the mother of teenage boys, I salute you…

1 Comment

hoodieThe man behind shows like X-Factor and Britain’s Got Talent is no shrinking violet but one of his greatest and most surprising achievements has yet to receive any recognition.

By giving a platform to the likes of street dance troupes Diversity and Flawless in these shows, Simon Cowell has (no doubt unwittingly) done more than anyone to challenge public and media stereotypes of young urban men as thugs and hoodies.

Research published by Women in Journalism in 2009, showed just how badly boys are demonised in the media. We found that coverage of young men was unrelentingly negative and there were more stories about teen boys and crime than all other subjects put together.

Boys were referred to variously in the press (in descending order of frequency) as yobs, thugs, sick, feral, hoodies, louts, heartless, evil, frightening, scum, monsters, inhuman and threatening. There were few positive stories to balance the bad ones: over three-quarters of articles about teen boys and sport were negative; 84% of stories about boys and entertainment were negative.

These TV talent shows are watched by millions and will genuinely be the first time that many viewers have seen groups of young black males in anything other than a negative context. Successful contestants on BGT – with names like Breaker, Shock and Swoosh – look, sound and swagger in exactly the same way as the kind of boys who are generally demonised.

Yet these young men have proved highly popular with the viewers, whose votes help decide which acts go through to the next round. Diversity – made up of 11 mainly black youths, aged 13-25, from east London – famously beat the tabloid favourite Susan Boyle to win BGT in 2009. Flawless – made up of 10 young black men, aged 21-26, from north London – were finalists in the same year.

Research by the Department for Education shows that the less contact people have with young people, the more negative their perceptions. Teachers and lower class parents (C2DEs) who typically have dealings with a variety of teenagers were less intimidated by teens than were older or wealthier people. (ABC1 parents tended to exempt their own children and those of friends as ‘good kids’, while all other teens were generally suspect.)

It’s probably fanciful to think that the middleclass mum who voted for Diversity rather than Susan Boyle, will be any less likely to cross the road to avoid a group of hoodies next time. However, TV talent shows have proved a powerful challenge to media stereotyping and given young men a unique chance to be their own ambassadors.

These contestants have shown you can be talented, ambitious and hardworking, but still achingly cool and oozing street cred. For once, we have a positive image of teenage boys which is real and recognisable, rather than some middle aged TV executive’s patronising idea of what a ‘good teen’ is like, or Disneyfied version, a la High School Musical.

I never thought I would have cause to say this but (as the mother of two boys, who bristles when I see the bad press teens get), thank you, Simon Cowell.

At this rate, I may even forgive him for Jedward.

Newer Entries