RACE FOR THE STORY AND
CHEQUEBOOK JOURNALISM

The police press conference where it was announced that a man was being questioned in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper murders, and Chief Constable Ronald Gregory's comment that "I can tell you that we are absolutely delighted with developments at this stage," as well as affirming that the Ripper investigation was being scaled down, created the opening moments in a media frenzy prior to Peter Sutcliffe appearing in court on any charge, and the rush of reporters to West Yorkshire in the race for the Yorkshire Ripper story.


After unofficial news of the detention of a suspect became known to at least one journalist, at 5:35 pm on Sunday, January 4th 1981, Robin Baxter, chief press officer for West Yorkshire Metropolitan began making telephone calls to other journalists informing them of the news. At 6:00 pm the news was announced by the BBC Radio 4 and Independent Television News, followed shortly by a Press Association transmission that a man was been questioned, and then confirmation that he had been arrested. From then on there was a steady build-up of reports and background information about the case.

When the West Yorkshire police press conference (see: ABSOLUTELY DELIGHTED for a partial transcript) was held, the stage was set for the media frenzy which followed. Coverage of the event rapidly increased, and reports of the press conference were given in detail. The Press had rapidly converged on the area, the Press Council was later informed that 150 inquiries by journalists in one hour were made at the South Yorkshire police headquarters, and 40 journalists had arrived there during the early evening. Calls had been made to the police headquarters from journalists from international locations, including Germany, Australia, Norway, Sweden, and America. Journalists, photographers, radio reporters, and television crews were all seeking information, all believing they had come to cover one of the major crime stories in history. That night, South Yorkshire police also held a news conference with Sargeant Robert Ring and Police Constable Robert Hydes, the two arresting officers. (see: ARREST AND MEDIA SEQUENCE OF EVENTS for full details of the events and press conferences.)

The two rival West Yorkshire daily newspapers, the Telegraph and Argus, based in Bradford, and the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, based in Leeds, were intent not only "scooping" each other, but also the mass of reporters from Fleet Street and the national papers, who by the hundreds were quickly arriving in the area. While the identity of the man being held in relation to the Ripper murders had not been released at the press conference, within hours reporters from the Yorkshire Post had not only secured the name and address of Peter Sutcliffe, their crime correspondent ignoring one national newspaper's offer of 2,500 reward solely for the name, but had also located a telephone number that Sonia Sutcliffe had left with a neighbour in case of an emergency. At 1.15 am, many hours ahead of the competition, two Yorkshire Post reporters were at the house of Sonia's parents, Bohdan and Maria Szurma, where they informed them of the news. The West Yorkshire police had failed to inform any of the family members, other than Sonia Sutcliffe, of the situation, leading them to discover for themselves, through various methods, that Peter Sutcliffe was, allegedly, the Yorkshire Ripper. The two Yorkshire Post reporters were able to secure a photograph of Peter Sutcliffe, and stayed with the Szurmas throughout the night. As the day wore on they watched scores of press cars arrive, and saw offers and pleas from virtually every newspaper in the country, and some from abroad, pushed through the letterbox. "We were inside," said one local reporter, "And the notes were coming through the letterbox like confetti. There was one that asked for the chance to top any other offer."

The following section is from the Press Council report "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case", and shows how on Monday January 5th, the newspapers handled the story of the arrest, the police news conference, and background material on the Ripper case:
4.14 Monday morning's national newspapers' recapitulation of the background to the arrest was much fuller than anything which had been on radio and television and generally the coverage was less restrained and more detailed.
4.15 The Daily Telegraph led its front page with a three column story headed RIPPER SQUAD HOLD SUSPECT, with the strap-line "Police chief 'totally delighted'".
4.16 The chief constable was quoted as announcing at his press conference that a man was being questioned "in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper murders" and would be appearing that day "on a serious charge". He was not named but was said to be in his thirties. Police were guarding a house in Heaton, Bradford, "believed to be the home of a lorry driver and his school teacher wife". The story drew on quotations from the chief constable and one of the policemen who detained the man. It included background material about the "Ripper" murders and their investigation.
4.17 The Daily Mail front page headed "RIPPER--A MAN HELD" included an account of the circumstances of the arrest, quotations from the press conference and some description from an unnamed neighbour. It did not name the man. Under a separate heading "Streetgirl's odd-looking customer", it carried an account by an unnamed prostitute of how "the man now being questioned by the Ripper Squad" had tried to pick her up. Two inside pages were mainly devoted to background material under the main heading "The Ripper's five-year terror reign".
4.18 The Daily Mirror front page was mainly an account of the press conference and the detention of the unnamed man, headed "RIPPER HUNT MAN IN COURT". A background story on an inside page was headed "FIVE YEAR REIGN OF TERROR".
4.19 The Times led with a double-column story headed "Ripper squad suspect faces serious charge" which quoted the police as saying that a married man from Bradford would appear before justices probably at Dewsbury "on a serious charge". The story did not name him. It reported the chief constable's remarks at the press conference and contained quotes from the two officers who detained the man. A shorter background piece inside was headed "Five years of terror for northern communities".
4.20 The Guardian led with a story across seven columns headed by "Man held in hunt for Ripper" with a displayed line of pictures of the thirteen victims and a strapline "Suspect to be charged today with 'serious offence' after arrest by vice-squad in Sheffield red light area". The story included material from the press conference and background identifying the thirteen murders. The front page had a separate eight-column historical story "Long and troubled search for killer".
4.21 Three national newspapers named Mr Sutcliffe. The Sun front page story "RIPPER: MAN FACES COURT TODAY" quoted descriptions and comments on Mr Sutcliffe and his wife by unnamed neighbours. Inside, the paper carried a double page spread, "RIPPER'S DEADLY REIGN", which included background material, a continuation of the front page story drawing on the police press conference, and a separate story "LONER WITH THE CRAZY EYES", devoted to an interview with a named blonde barmaid describing how a "stranger with staring eyes" had tried to pick her up. The reader was left to infer that the story appeared to relate to the man who had been detained.
4.22 Another to use his name was the Daily Star which headed its front page "RIPPER POLICE HOLD MAN, Husband in his 30's due in court today". In the story it said the man being interviewed was Peter W. Sutcliffe and that police said he would probably appear in court that day on "a serious charge". One inside page headlined "RIPPER-ARREST DRAMA" and "We are all delighted. . . Really delighted. . . Absolutely delighted". It carried an interview with a police officer about the arrest and with the wife of one of the policemen who made it. The centre spread was "THE RIPPER: CATALOGUE OF SHEER HORROR, 13 women dead in five bloody years".
4.23 A third national newspaper named the man detained more obliquely. The Daily Express front page headline was "RIPPER HUNT: MAN HELD". The story drew mainly on the press conference but in a continuation on an inside page said police were guarding a four-bedroomed house, which neighbours said was occupied by Mr Peter Sutcliffe, whose wife was a teacher. There were quotations about the couple from an unnamed neighbour. The coverage included a background story "YEARS OF TERROR".
4.24 So far as the Press Council is aware the only other newspaper to name Mr Sutcliffe that morning was the Yorkshire Post.
4.25 Local and national radio bulletins developed the story on the Monday morning, and it was heavily featured in regional evening newspapers, particularly in the north.
4.26. In London the New Standard devoted most of its front page to a picture of Mr Sutcliffe at the wheel of a lorry headed "Behind the wheel . . . the first picture" and "RIPPER: THE MAN HELD". The picture was reproduced from a brochure of the company for which he worked. It was captioned as "Peter Sutcliffe the 35-years-old Bradford lorry driver being questioned about the 13 Yorkshire Ripper murders". A story with interviews and background material was carried inside.
4.27 In Bradford the Telegraph & Argus headed its front page "JOY OF THE RIPPER HUNTERS" with a large beaming picture of Assistant Chief Constable Oldfield. Its story began "Bradford lorry driver Peter Sutcliffe was due to appear in court today charged with 'a serious offence . . .' and the second paragraph "And jubilant West Yorkshire Police said they were now scaling down the hunt for the Ripper".
4.28 Similar treatment was given to the story by the Yorkshire Evening Post, Leeds, with a main photograph of the three senior police officers captioned "Smiles all round . . .".
4.29 The interaction of radio, television and newspaper coverage and the effect each medium's treatment of the story had on the others was a marked feature of the response of editors and broadcasters to the Press Council's inquiries. Newspaper editors told the Council the immediacy of radio and television coverage on the first and second days after the story broke spurred them to publish material which they might not otherwise have done. Broadcasting news executives told the Council they felt inhibited from announcing, for instance, the name of the man who had been detained until they read the name on Sunday night in the early editions of Monday's morning newspapers.

The race for the Ripper story was in full swing on Monday, January 5th, as the various media representatives began to secure information, sometimes with the chequebook, sometimes requiring exclusivity for their payments, from basically anyone who may have information about Peter Sutcliffe. Family, friends, acquaintances, neighbours, workmates, etc. were besieged by the media for photographs and information about the man thought to be the Yorkshire Ripper. The "most wanted" signing for an exclusive interview was reserved for Peter Sutcliffe's wife, Sonia, and many offers and various amounts of money were suggested from the very beginning and continued until the trial.

To jeering mobs in Dewsbury, Peter Sutcliffe appeared in court Monday afternoon, January 5th, charged with the theft of number plates and the murder of Jacqueline Hill. Usually, once someone has appeared in court on a criminal charge, newspaper coverage about background information about the crime or the person accused comes to an end until after the end of criminal proceeding to minimise the risk of prejudicing a fair trial. This restraint was not apparent in published reports on Tuesday, January 6th.

The following section is from the Press Council report "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case", and details the newspaper reports for January 6th:
4.31 The Daily Telegraph carried a front page court story headed "'RIPPER MURDER' CHARGE Booing crowds outside court" and a separate story "Firm used his photo in leaflet" which included interviews with Mr Sutcliffe's employer, a workmate and neighbours.
4.32 The Daily Mail front page story was "GUARD FOR HIS WIFE" with a strap-line "Crowd jeers and screams at man as Ripper squad accuse him of murder". It was a court story with some background material about the announcements by police the previous day, and descriptions of the crowds around the court. Inside the paper carried background material on four pages including descriptions of how Mr Sutcliffe's father learned the news of his arrest, a substantial interview with his father, and comments by his employer and several neighbours.
4.33 The Daily Star front page was devoted to pictures of Mr Sutcliffe (covered by a blanket) and of his wife on her way to court, with the heading "The wife weeps in court". On three inside pages the paper carried a very short court story and extensive other coverage including interviews with the prostitute who was reported to have been in the car when he was detained, his mother-in-law and her husband, his brother, his cousin and his employer.
4.34 The Daily Mirror front page was mainly occupied by pictures of Mr Sutcliffe (blanketed) and of his wife leaving the court and of the girl whose murder he was accused of, under the heading "THE MAN ACCUSED". The court story inside was "JEERS AS MAN FACES MURDER CHARGE" with a separate story about a photograph of Mr Sutcliffe driving his lorry which had been used for promotion purposes by his employers. The paper carried a separate background piece over two pages "The man of mystery in Garden Lane" which included interviews with neighbours and a background story about his marriage, and another about two prostitutes--one the woman who was with him at the time he was detained and the other who said she had refused him shortly before.
4.35 The Daily Express front page, headed "ORDEAL OF WIFE", carried similar pictures, a description of Mr Sutcliffe's arrival at court, and a short court story. Inside it had a background story about the girl with whose murder he had been charged, interviews with two prostitutes (one of them the woman who had been with Mr Sutcliffe when he was detained), background and local colour stories, and a double page spread "THE 'NICE QUIET MAN' FROM GARDEN LANE" which was labelled "Profile of Peter William Sutcliffe by the family who stand by him, the neighbours in middle-class suburbia, and the workmates who thought highly of him". It included interviews with his family, neighbours and his employers and a short piece "Carnival time in red-light areas".
4.36 The Sun's front page headed "MURDER CHARGE DRAMA, Police ring dock in Dewsbury" dealt with the court appearance. A double page photo-news continuation inside was headed "THE JEERS AND THE JIBES Mob fury at murder court". It included pictures of Sutcliffe (blanketed) arriving at the court and of his wife and his father-in-law leaving. The paper carried an interview with his employer, and a comment from a workmate.
4.37 The Guardian had a story on page one headed "Driver charged with girl's murder". It included pictures of the crowd, two men in the crowd, one with a placard, and the other holding what looked like a noose; and one of the arresting officers. The paper had an inside feature on detection of serious crimes and the role of the uniformed branch of the police.
4.38 One national newspaper which covered the story in a restrained fashion was The Times. It had a short report of the court proceedings and an account of the Dewsbury street scenes at the top of page one across five columns under the heading "Lorry driver charged with murder of Leeds student" and a picture of police holding the crowds.
4.39 Later that day, 6 January 1981, Mr James Nursaw, legal secretary of the Law Officers' Department, wrote to editors that the Solicitor General, Sir lan Percival, who was acting in the absence of the Attorney General abroad, wanted to inform them of his concern about the publicity given to the Yorkshire Ripper case since Mr Sutcliffe's arrest. The letter said: "The Solicitor General reminds editors of the vital principle embodied in English law that a man accused of a crime, however serious, is presumed to be innocent and is entitled to a fair trial. and of the responsibility which the law accordingly places upon editors in circumstances such as the present."
"The Solicitor General will be discussing with the Attorney General those reports which have been published since Mr Sutcliffe's arrest but he is anxious that editors should themselves consider the publications for which they have been responsible and take such decisions in relation to future publications as will minimise the risk of prejudicing a fair trial."

On Wednesday, January 7th, it was announced that the Press Council would hold an inquiry into the coverage of events leading up to and concerning Mr Sutcliffe's appearance before magistrates at Dewsbury.

Also on the same day, the Telegraph and Argus ran an editorial about the race for the Ripper story. "Cheque-book journalism - the buying of people with a special story to tell by an individual newspaper to the exclusion of all others" had "raised its ugly head in Bradford over the past few days." It continued by stating, "Responsible journalists base their case for unimpeded access to information on the people's right to know. When other so-called journalists come along to corner the market on the basis of how much money they have to spend, they have discarded the basic principles for the morals of the marketplace. We can do without them in Bradford."

"Exclusive" signings of those who also could have been considered as potential witnesses, included the Sutcliffe family by the Daily Mail, who moved them to the Stirk House Hotel, near Gisburn, prostitute Olivia Reivers, and one of Peter Sutcliffe's close friends, Trevor Birdsall. The Sunday People took Trevor Birdsall, his girlfriend Gloria, and her son, to the Cottage Motel, Delph. The police finally had to ask the Sunday People to return Trevor Birdsall from the hideaway so he could be interviewed. It was a prime example of the police mishandling of the whole situation in regards to Peter Sutcliffe's arrest. By holding the press conference so soon after his arrest, police inquiries and interviews with Sutcliffe's family (who had not even been informed about his arrest by the police), friends, acquaintances, neighbours, workmates, etc., would be hampered by the media in their race for the Ripper story. With the hundreds of reporters, and plenty of cash, the police were severely outmatched.

On February 20th, Mrs Doreen Hill, the mother of Jacqueline Hill, Peter Sutcliffe's final murder victim, held a press conference at the offices of her solicitor on Middlesbrough, where she launched her campaign to outlaw chequebook journalism. She had been moved to act by a Private Eye magazine article about the race to sign up Sonia Sutcliffe. The Daily Mail was reported to be leading the pack, and a sum of 250,000 was mentioned. Doreen Hill was no stranger to the media's antics. The day that the police announced that Jacqueline Hill was a Ripper victim, the media descended on her house, taking photographs through her windows, and pushing offers of money through her letterbox. "I regarded them as blood money and threw them on the fire," she would later say. She was incensed with the substantial payments to Sutcliffe's friends and relations. "It's wrong that anyone connected with the killer of my daughter should profit from it financially. There are 25 children left without mothers by the Ripper killings, and if there's any money going around it should go to them." Doreen Hill would make several complaints to the Press Council about various newspapers, and would also push for legislation banning chequebook journalism.

On the second day of the trial at the Old Bailey, May 6th, chequebook journalism, and payment to witnesses, came out during the trial when Trevor Birdsall took the stand at 4:36 pm, just before the adjournment. He was immediately asked by the Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, QC, for the prosecution, about whether he had entered into any agreement with any newspaper "about your knowledge in the matters concerned with Peter Sutcliffe." Mr Birdsall replied that the Sunday People had given him 500, and had been giving him 65 per week since the beginning of January. The payments had stopped about two weeks previously. The Sunday People was also paying his hotel bill while he was in London, and he was charging everything, including drinks, to their account. The woman with whom he was living with had an exclusive rights contact with the Sunday People worth 2,000.

Mr Birdsall was told by the judge, Mr Justice Boreham, "You are here to give evidence whatever arrangement you may have made with anyone else. Your duty here is to give evidence to the best of your ability. Whatever has gone on in the past, from this moment on, you will not discuss your evidence with anybody else, whether from a newspaper or from any other source." The judge also warned, "If you break that injunction then my powers are very wide and immediate."

Mr Birdsall also said that he did not expect to receive any more money from the paper. Sir Michael Havers asked "Because in a sense we're hearing your story for nothing?" Mr Birdsall agreed. However, when he left the court three Sunday People employees met him and escorted him to a cab, with scuffling and jostling and a barrage of abuse coming from colleagues of rival publications.

After Trevor Birdsall's testimony on the following day, May 7th, he was again met by the three employees of the Sunday People, and again they tried to run the gauntlet of reporters, photographers, and television cameras. After waiting about 15 minutes inside the Old Bailey for an ordered taxi, they made their dash towards the taxi, Mr Birdsall covered with his raincoat, but reporters bocked their route. The scuffling and jostling prevented them from entering the taxi, and to jeers and catcalls, they retreated back inside the building. On the next attempt they were successful in getting into the taxi, but again had met the same resistance and jeering.

Also on May 7th, further evidence of payments to witnesses by various news organisations was brought out as each witness was asked by either Sir Michael Havers, or Harry Ognall, QC, assisting him, about any financial arrangements they had. Ronald Barker replied that he and his mother had received 700 from the Sun newspaper for photographs of Sutcliffe's wedding. He was also expecting 400 from the Sunday People for pictures taken of him in Chapeltown at the scene of Jayne MacDonald's murder. His brother, David Barker stated that he had received 20 from ITN at the beginning of March, and 10 by the BBC on March 23, just to talk about Peter Sutcliffe.

Olivia Reivers, the prostitute who was in the car with Peter Sutcliffe when he was arrested in Sheffield, said that, "The Daily Star paid me 1,000 but I had to give my solicitor 300 out of that." and that she had signed an exclusive contract with the newspaper and there was another 3,000 to come.

Sir Michael Havers made it very clear as to why he asked the witnesses these questions, and stated, "If money has been paid and more is available, it is one of the considerations which might tempt a witness to gild the lily, to make his story worth more money . . . The jury must always be satisfied there was not some ulterior motive such as money which might be persuading someone to tell a story which is much worse or much better because of the cheque at the end of it."

On May 6th, as well as the revelation from Trevor Birdsall about the payments he received, a letter was released that had been sent to Jack and Doreen Hill, the parents of murder victim Jacqueline Hill, and revealed the Queen's distaste for chequebook journalism. The Queen's reaction was in a letter from her deputy private secretary, Mr. William Heseltine, stated, "I am commanded by the Queen to acknowledge your letter of February 21 and to begin by offering you both Her Majesty's very heartfelt sympathy at the tragic death of your daughter. Her Majesty can well understand your feelings about the proposal, if true, that the Daily Mail is planning to publish the story of the man accused of her murder told by members of his family, and paying them substantial sums of money to do so. Although there is nothing illegal in what is proposed and therefore no way Her Majesty could properly intervene, she certainly shares in the sense of distaste which right-minded people will undoubtedly feel."

On May 10th, the Sunday Times published a list of more examples of chequebook journalism that had taken place. Besides the known payments to the witnesses at trial, they included 5,000 from the Daily Mail to Peter Sutcliffe's father John, 350 from the Daily Express to friends of Sutcliffe for a photograph of him digging a grave, as well as small sums for background information, 230 from ITN to four members of the public for information and photographs. As well, the Sunday Times said that it was reported that the Sunday People has signed up Theresa Douglas, a Scottish woman whom Sutcliffe had regularly visited in 1980.

The press conduct, including the chequebook journalism that took place, and the published reports immediately after the initial police press conference, would be thoroughly investigated by the Press Council. In 1983, they published their report, "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case". See PRESS COUNCIL REPORT: PART ONE (Fair Trial And The Presumption Of Innocence) and PRESS COUNCIL REPORT: PART TWO (Chequebook Journalism) for details of the report.



(NOTE: Source material: Burn, The Press Council, "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case" (quotes used by permission), Yallop, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times, New Statesman, UK Press Gazette.)



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