The following are the conclusions by the Press Council from the book "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case", a report by the Press Council (1983), in regards to the police and media events that took place after the arrest of Peter Sutcliffe, and before he was charged, and how they might have affected the right of the suspect to a fair trial.
The Application of the Law
10.1 Although the protection of the presumption of innocence by the law is a matter for the law and the courts, not for the Press Council, the Council feels bound to comment upon it in the light of the newspaper conduct which it has considered, the evidence it has had from editors and others and the reactions of the law officers--the Solicitor General in his warning to editors at the beginning and the Attorney General in his statement to the House of Commons on 10 June 1981 and his letter to the Chairman of the Press Council.
10.2 In this case the presumption of innocence, and public confidence that there would be a fair trial, were put gravely at risk: first by the police and then by the press and other media. No prosecution for contempt followed, and the Press Council is driven to the conclusion that the law of contempt as administered in England at that time could not, or at any rate did not, guarantee that the presumption was preserved inviolate.
Problems for the Police and Press
10.3 The Press Council does not, however, underestimate the peculiar difficulties which faced both the police and the press.
10.4 It was no ordinary case. For five years as murder followed murder there had been a growing climate of fear in West Yorkshire and surrounding areas in which women and girls feared to go out alone, their families feared for them, and neighbour was suspicious of neighbour.
10.5 For a long time there had been criticism of the police, understandable even though it may have been unfair, for their failure to catch the criminal. After years of such criticism it is the more understandable, though not more excusable, that the police reacted with jubilation when they believed they had in custody the man for whom they had searched for so long.
10.6 The police and the press each faced a particular conflict of aims which was difficult to resolve. In what the police said and in what the press reported each had to maintain the presumption of innocence but each wanted to give immediate assurance to the public that the five-year terror was over. It may be that there was no way in which the police and the press could have done both those things.
10.7 From newspaper reports, radio and television broadcasts and the conduct and statements of the police on 4 and 5 January, no doubt was left in people's minds that the terror had ended and they could go about in safety again, but this assurance was given at the expense of the public presumption of the innocence of the man the police had detained.
10.8 The question arises whether a failure by the police to maintain public confidence in the presumption of innocence could excuse a subsequent failure of the press so to do.
10.9 The Press Council approached this question from the point of view of ethics not law, but it is a basic presumption of law in dealing with contempt or defamation by newspapers and a basic presumption of the Press Council in dealing with the ethical conduct of newspapers that the editor is responsible for what appears in his newspaper. No one can relieve him of that responsibility nor can he escape it.
10.10 The result is that whatever shortcomings there may have been in the conduct of this affair by the police and by others, the decision whether or not to publish material which may have been in contempt, prejudicial, in breach of the reporting restrictions of the Criminal Justice Act, or just plain unfair and therefore a matter for the Press Council, lay with the editor and no one else.
10.11 The conduct of the police may have misled an unwary editor and may have mitigated his fault in publishing something which he ought not to have published. If a chief constable or another senior police officer calls a press conference about an important criminal inquiry of great public interest in which a prosecution is imminent, journalists are likely to assume that what is said by police at the conference may be reported. Being misled in that fashion may go a long way to explain an editor's mistaken decision to publish but cannot excuse it or relieve the editor of responsibility for it.
Editors and their Lawyers
10.12 Although the Press Council was concerned to have the views of editors on the way their coverage of Mr Sutcliffe's court appearance on 5 January complied with, or was affected by, the reporting restrictions of the Criminal Justice Act, it distinguishes between the legal responsibilities of newspapers imposed by those restrictions and by the law of contempt and their ethical responsibilities which are in the particular ambit of the Press Council. It sets out that distinction elsewhere in this report (see Chapter 3). At this point it is necessary only to say that while it is for a newspaper's lawyer to advise about the law it is for the editor to make up his own mind about the ethics of the matter. On this occasion the decision about what to publish was essentially one which had to be taken by the editor at the time.
Prejudice and Unfairness
10.13 In its general consideration of the reports, articles and photographs which appeared in newspapers the Press Council's test in this case has been whether what the newspapers published in early January 1981, particularly on 5 and 6 January after Mr Sutcliffe's detention, was either in itself prejudicial to a fair trial or likely to induce a widespread belief that Mr Sutcliffe would not get a fair trial because he had already been condemned by the police and the media. It has also considered whether publication of some material was unfair without necessarily being prejudicial.
To Name or Not To Name
10 14 Some newspapers published Peter Sutcliffe's name and address on the morning of 5 January before he had been charged with any serious offence and before his name and address were released by the police. Such identification is often undesirable. Usually newspapers refrain from publishing a name until an accused person has been charged and often until after he or she has appeared in court. One reason for this restraint may be the danger of a libel action should the person not, after all, be charged. Another critical reason which should be more compelling is the damage done to the person concerned. Grave harm to a person's reputation can result from his identification as a suspect if no charge is eventually brought. In such circumstances the suspect has no opportunity of being cleared by a court. It is good newspaper practice not to publish the name of a person charged with an offence until that person appears in court and in our view it is desirable that that practice should be followed. It is just conceivable that there could be a case where the defence of a person accused might be prejudiced by premature publication of his name and address. This was not such a case. No harm was done by Mr Sutcliffe being named on 5 January. He was in fact charged and the Council has seen nothing which suggests that his defence was prejudiced by the publication of his name.
10.15 There can be circumstances in which the naming of a person suspected of a crime may be in itself unfair quite apart from whether or not it is prejudicial to his subsequent trial. The Council has considered with care that possibility in this case. It has concluded, with a hindsight denied to editors making up their minds that night, that the publication of his name was not in itself unfair to Mr Sutcliffe.
Publication of Pictures
10.16 At least two newspapers published (one of them very prominently) a close-up, though blurred, photograph of Mr Sutcliffe during the period when he was being questioned and before he had been charged. In the past newspapers have generally refrained from publishing pictures of an accused person in such circumstances because of the danger of prejudicing any issue of identification at the eventual trial. The explanation given to the Council by the editor of The Standard for his newspaper's publication of the photograph in this case was that the police gave guidance to the newspapers that Mr Sutcliffe had confessed and that identification would not be in dispute. Two hours later, the Council has been told, the police announced that the accused man's features would form part of the prosecution case. In the Press Council's view it is dangerous and unsatisfactory for newspapers to rely on statements by the police or by the prosecution that identification will not be an issue in a trial. For the police to issue guidance of this type and for newspapers to act upon it may be to close an option which should be open to the defence. The only opinion to the effect that identification would not be an issue which might properly free newspapers to publish pre-trial photographs would be an opinion from those defending the accused given after they have had an opportunity of taking full instructions and considering what the defence of the accused man is. In other circumstances publication of a photograph of an accused man before his trial is in the Press Council's view potentially prejudicial. Clearly different considerations arise where for example, a photograph of a criminal or suspect criminal who is at large is published at the request of the police in order to aid capture. (That was the position with Gerard Tuite whose case was cited by the editor of The Guardian-- and the council rejects the parallel which the editor seeks to draw).
10.17 It follows that it was wrong of the New Standard to have published the picture in the first place and furthermore that it should have taken immediate steps to withdraw the picture from publication as soon as it learned from Supt Morritt that the man's features would form part of the prosecution's case. Similar considerations apply to the publication of a similar picture in the Evening Despatch, Darlington.
10.18 The suggestion by both newspapers that the pictures which they decided to publish were too indistinct or out of date to pose any danger is an unconvincing, and unappealing, argument.
10.19 The geographical argument that it was safe for the New Standard to publish the picture because its circulation was such that its readers would not include jurors is in the Council's view unconvincing and dangerous. Copies of the New Standard do find their way to Yorkshire and also into the hands of people from Yorkshire visiting London: in the event the trial of Mr Sutcliffe was transferred from Yorkshire to the Central Criminal Court which is in the heart of the New Standards circulation area.
Circumstances of Arrest
10.20 Newspapers made free use of descriptions, obtained from the police, of the circumstances of Mr Sutcliffe's detention--notably the fact that when detained he was with a woman (whom some newspapers identified as a prostitute) in a parked car in a red light district in Sheffield. The publication of such detail at an early stage could certainly be prejudicial to a fair trial or prejudice public confidence in a fair trial, and the Press Council does not think that such detail should have been published in this case. It was a well-known fact that many of the Ripper's victims had been prostitutes.
10.21 In the Press Council's view it was wrong to publish at that stage and in that detail, for instance, what the Daily Express published about Miss Denise Hall (the girl who according to the story rejected Peter Sutcliffe's advances) and her friend Miss Olivia Reivers (the girl who got into his car and was with him when he was arrested). Its story "And the girls who met a stranger" reads like the evidence they might have been expected to give in court, and publication of that story was likely to diminish public faith in an unprejudiced trial on the evidence put in court.
10.22 The paper's story "Carnival time in red-light areas" clearly implied the assumption evident in the attitude of the police and in this and other newspapers' treatment of the events of that weekend that the Ripper had been caught and there was no doubt of the guilt of the man who by then had been charged and remanded.
10.23 The press understandably gave vast publicity to the apparently unrestrained and unconcealed delight of the police who made clear they believed they had caught the Ripper. This conduct was in sharp contrast to the customary behaviour of the police in advance of a verdict of guilty and on this occasion took place even before the man had been charged. However understandable their jubilation may have been there is no doubt that it was potentially highly prejudicial to public faith in a fair trial. Not only did their announcements imperil a fair trial, so did the conduct of the three senior policemen who posed for press photographs beaming with satisfaction.
Potential Witnesses: The Police
10.24 The risk of prejudice was greatly increased by the holding of further press conferences and photo-calls by the police during the period between detention and charge. Whether or not it would ultimately prejudice consideration by a jury, it was potentially highly prejudicial to faith in a fair trial for the stories of the two officers who detained Mr Sutcliffe to be given to the press and reported in advance of his appearing in court. The two policemen were presented to the press and by the press as conquering heroes. This would have been justifiable after a guilty verdict was returned against the man they had detained but was wholly undesirable and prejudicial at any stage before then.
Potential Witnesses: The Prostitutes
10.25 Whatever the intention and however strong the alleged pressures the Press Council is surprised that the police should have countenanced the holding, following Mr Sutcliffe's first court appearance, of a press conference in a police station by two women who were clearly likely to be witnesses--one of them the woman who was with the accused when he was detained. The Council considers that it was potentially highly prejudicial for the press to have published the comments and evidence of the two women at that stage.
Stories out of Court
10.26 There were some obvious immediate dangers in the holding and reporting of this press conference and of the one given by the two arresting officers. Whatever care was taken no-one could be certain what those taking part in the press conferences would say and whether they would let fall some piece of information they were not intending to reveal, and which might have been prejudicial to a fair trial. More importantly, the reporting of the two press conferences could not fail to leave an impression that witnesses were telling there the stories which one would have expected them to tell on oath in court where they would be subject to the strict rules governing the giving of evidence. The public would certainly and properly expect, for example, the two police officers' account of Mr Sutcliffe's apprehension to be given first by sworn testimony in court and not in out-of-court statements to journalists. There was the danger, too, that the evidence the officers and the two women eventually might be called upon to give in court could have been coloured by their examination by the press at those press conferences.
The Police Press Conferences
10.27 As the editor of The Guardian appreciated in his comments to the Council, at the heart of the early stages of this matter were the press conferences held by the police. Once the decision to report these--and particularly the first one held in West Yorkshire--had been taken, much of the other coverage by newspapers followed naturally, including the listing of the thirteen victims and the publication of their photographs. It is not unusual for the police to hold press conferences during their investigation of a murder. What was unusual in this case was what was said at the press conferences and the manner of it.
10.28 Some editors have laid responsibility for the style of newspaper (and other media) coverage on the release of material by the police and the atmosphere of jubilation at the first press conference. There is no doubt that the release of material by the police made that coverage possible and their atmosphere of jubilation encouraged the coverage, but the responsibility for what is published by newspapers must lie with their editors, not with their news sources. The Council has had to ask itself, as editors had to ask themselves, whether the press was right to report those press conferences, and particularly the first one. There can be no complaint by the police that their press conferences were reported and newspapers were unlikely to have complained at the time that the police should not have held press conferences in the way they did, but the police and the press have a responsibility outside the responsibility they have to each other: it is, as the Council makes clear elsewhere in this Report, a duty to be fair even outside the strict bounds of the law.
10.29 Suppose (by way of example only) that at the first police press conference a police spokesman had said: "I am happy to announce that we have caught the Yorkshire Ripper. His name is Peter William Sutcliffe and he lives at Garden Lane, Bradford. He is the man who committed the thirteen murders. He is now in police custody. He will be charged tomorrow." Should the media have reported these statements? In our opinion such statements would have grossly prejudiced the prospects of a fair trial for Mr Sutcliffe and the media should have declined to give publicity to them.
10.30 If this is right it then becomes a question of judgement whether what was actually said at the first police press conference, taken in the context of the smiling faces and the atmosphere of euphoria, was calculated to produce the same impression on the mind as if the words in our example had been spoken. The critical expressions used were: "...this man is now detained here in West Yorkshire and he is being questioned in relation to the Yorkshire Ripper murders. It is anticipated that he will appear before the court in Dewsbury tomorrow.... I can tell you that we are absolutely delighted with developments at this stage, absolutely delighted"; the chief constable's answer "Right" when asked "Are you scaling down the operation with the general hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper from this moment on?" and his reference to the "two outstanding police officers", who detained the man. They had, said Mr Gregory, "my heartfelt thanks". It is true that Mr Sutcliffe's name was not mentioned. Nevertheless, in the Council's view, the overwhelming impression that would have been left on the mind of the ordinary person who saw or heard everything that transpired at the conference would have been that the police now held the Yorkshire Ripper and would formally charge him (and reveal his identity) the next day.
10.31 Apart from the very important and unfortunate public effect of what was said, done and reported in this case the Council is concerned at a difficulty to which such conduct may give rise inside newspaper offices. What the Press Council believes were errors of judgement on the part of the police in respect of the press conferences they held and the statements they made may make harder in future the jobs of editors in complying with the law and following and enforcing proper ethical standards. In the nature of the press, while an editor is encouraging his staff to more vigorous investigation and news gathering, he also has to play a restraining role in the interests of fairness, sometimes unpopularly having to curb the enthusiasm of his reporters and news editors. The editor who tries to do that finds his position undermined if he can be told that the material which he holds to be sub judice, in contempt or unfair was provided by the police at a police press conference. The next time he may well be less likely to try to restrain his staff's enthusiasm.
10.32 There is a moral duty to be considered by a newspaper editor before reporting in the context of a murder inquiry before anyone has been convicted, what The Guardian's editor has described as the police "claim to success". That, it seems to the Council, was a point at which the press had a duty to step back before reporting and consider fairness and the impact such a story would make before reporting.
Linking The Suspect With The Crime
10.33 The most serious problem for newspapers and other reporting the case at the stage after Mr Sutcliffe's arrest and before his appearance in court was, as the editor of the Daily Mirror said, how to identify to the public the important case in which he had been detained. There is no wholly satisfactory answer to the question. The best answer must be that the public interest in whoever is detained having a fair trial remains paramount.
10.34 Accepting that nothing ought to have been published which was likely to prejudice a fair trial, the Press Council is driven to the conclusion that virtually nothing ought to have been published of what was said, or was apparent from the atmosphere, at the main West Yorkshire police press conference.
10.35 Much of what was said at and reported from that press conference significantly extended the danger there was to a fair trial in this case. It would have been better had that press conference never been held. The Press Council hopes profoundly that such a conference will never be held again.
10.36 The answer to the question the editor of the Daily Mirror--and all other editors--faced that day is that the public interest would have been served best by newspapers identifying the case, without giving details, and reporting only that a man had been detained and would appear in court on a serious charge.
Background--For Use Later
10.37 The Council considered whether the publication at this stage in early January of background material about the accused from his employer, his work-mates, and his neighbours was prejudicial. It finds that this publication, too, violated the presumption of innocence and was potentially prejudicial at that time. At this point the Press Council is not commenting on the means used to obtain background material about a crime or a criminal but on the effect that publishing such material may have, however it has been obtained. The tone in which such material was written and the frequent use of the past tense ("Peter Sutcliffe was...") all tended to confirm that the mysterious Ripper had been exposed at last.
10.38 In criminal cases which arouse great public interest it has long been the custom of the press and broadcasting organisations to collect as soon as possible background material about someone accused of the crime but not to publish it unless and until the person concerned has been found guilty. The Council believes that practice to be perfectly fair, subject to the proviso the Council made in 1966 about the questioning of witnesses in committal proceedings. It avoids the heavy potential prejudice there was in the publication of background material about the accused in this case before a charge had even been laid.
Recapitulation of the Crimes
10.39 Most newspapers carried prominently details of the victims of the Yorkshire Ripper and some carried very prominently photographs of the thirteen women and girls. After careful consideration the Press Council has concluded that given the announcement that a man was being questioned in connection with the Ripper case, it cannot say that publication of the names and details, and even of the photographs, of victims was itself prejudicial. However the manner of their publication, the style of presentation and the impact they and other material taken together were likely to have upon readers has yet to be considered.
Generally Unfair and Prejudicial
10.40 Overall, what the Council most criticises and finds to have been highly and inexcusably prejudicial and unfair was the composite general impression created in most newspapers by the publication of some or all of these matters, their tone and their display. The general impression left was that the man who had been detained, even though he had not then been charged, was beyond doubt the killer of the thirteen women and girls and that a trial was no more than a formality.
(NOTE: Source (used by permission): The Press Council, "Press Conduct In The Sutcliffe Case" )