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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 December 2006, 21:05 GMT
Was BBC right over Stephens tape?
By Torin Douglas
BBC media correspondent

The BBC broadcast an exclusive interview with suspect Tom Stephens after he was arrested in connection with the murders of five prostitutes in Suffolk.

The corporation has defended the decision to show the interview, but others have criticised the move.

Tom Stephens picture from myspace.com
The BBC aired the Tom Stephens interview after his arrest

The BBC seems to have few supporters over its decision to broadcast its much-trumpeted exclusive interview with Tom Stephens, after his arrest in connection with the Suffolk murders.

On The Editors web page, the decision was defended by the BBC's deputy director of news, Adrian van Klaveren.

But the vast majority of respondents have criticised the BBC, many in scathing terms.

They've accused it of embracing tabloid values, caring more about its scoop than justice.

Some cited the risk of prejudice if Mr Stephens were to come to trial. Others said there'd been a breach of trust, since the BBC had agreed with Mr Stephens that the interview was to be used for background material, not for broadcast.

'Public interest'

Mr van Klaveran said the BBC was confident that nothing it had broadcast could prejudice any future trial. Others disagreed.

"Being 'confident' is not good enough - are you certain it won't prejudice a trial if it goes to that?" wrote Jon Willis.

"Given that this guy gave the interview in confidence, it seems certain that he said things to you that he wouldn't have said for public airing.

"What possible 'public interest' could there be when the guy is already in custody under questioning?"

Jeff wrote: "The police hadn't confirmed the name of the man they had arrested. For good reason - we presume innocent until proven guilty.

"Because of media outlets such as the BBC, the police's correct behaviour is without power to support this extremely important principle of our justice system."

"Has the Contempt of Court Act been repealed?" asked Wallis.

"I thought contempt of court by publication occurs when there is (a) substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to particular proceedings; and (b) the case is active.

"In this instance the case is active because of an arrest, and I can't think of many potential jurors who, if this case comes to trial, won't have formed an opinion already, based on what they've seen or heard."

Media prosecutions

In fact, the issue of prejudice is complex. There is a view that by the time a case comes to trial juries have forgotten most of the early publicity and are, in any case, able to put it to one side.

But in high-profile cases such as this, some judges have still had harsh words for the media, and some media organisations have been prosecuted.

Other respondents were more concerned about what they saw as a clear breach of trust.

Murder victims (clockwise from top left) Anneli Alderton; Annette Nicholls; Paula Clennell; Tania Nicol; Gemma Adams
Stephens was arrested in connection with five murders in Suffolk

Several raised the case of the government weapons inspector Dr David Kelly, who also gave a BBC journalist information in confidence, only to see his name published (though not by the BBC).

"Forget justice for a minute," wrote Archie. "More straightforwardly, how can you reasonably say that a change in circumstances warrants your decision to waive the promise you gave to this man of anonymity?

"You've broken the rules of the most fundamental relationship in journalism - that between reporter and source - because it gave you a good story, and I kinda think it stinks."

'Right for audiences'

Others criticised the BBC for its attempt to justify the broadcasts.

"We felt there was a compelling public interest in letting the public hear what he had to say," wrote Mr van Klaveren, concluding: "Ultimately our judgement was based on what we felt would be right for our audiences."

"When will journalists learn that the 'public interest' does not mean 'things the public might be interested in..." asked Michael.

"An absolute golden rule for journalists was that they protect the identity of the people that help them - that's part of the deal, and something the BBC agreed with this man.

"The honour of journalism used to be that these were absolute rules - journalists have gone to court to protect that honour in the past.

"Now, the BBC decides it can get some sensationalism into a story, claiming the 'public interest'."

Debate aired

Most said it was what they expected of tabloid media, not of the BBC.

"Bad form BBC. I suggest you research 'contempt of court', 'off the record' and the difference between 'the public is interested in' and 'public interest'," said one.

The one faint note of praise was that the BBC allowed this debate to be aired, on BBC Two's Newsnight and Radio 4's Today programme, and then on its website.

"I suppose we should be grateful that the BBC gives us this chance to criticise its editorial decisions," wrote Jack Thompson.

"I doubt the Sun or even the Times and the Guardian would offer us a similar opportunity.

"But I'm afraid that doesn't justify the BBC's decision to broadcast the Stephens interview.

"It is self-evident that this has prejudiced a possible trial and those of us who once worked for the BBC as journalists were rightly told by our bosses at the time that anything that prevented a defendant from getting a fair trial should not be broadcast."

The debate will continue inside the BBC as well.




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