Crime reporting, a lens on the world

Crime reporting is “a prism through which we see the world”, former Guardian crime correspondent Duncan Campbell told the Book Circle at its April meeting, describing some of the dramatic changes – for better or for worse – he has seen during his decades-long career. More and more journalists are being tried, fined and jailed on spurious or legally dubious charges: witness Chris Mullin’s imprisonment under the 2000 Terrorism Act for refusing to reveal his sources in connection with the Birmingham Six and pub bombings of 1974. Mullin, who has since become an icon for journalists’ rights, was finally exonerated last month. Duncan himself was sued for libel by the Stoke Newington police in 1997 (and won), while the outcome of the defamation trial brought against The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr is due later this year. Journalists around the world – particularly in such countries as Malta, Mexico, India and Saudi Arabia – have risked and in some cases forfeited their lives while covering corruption and other crimes, which are becoming increasingly sophisticated, high-tech and internationalised. And such incidents are only on the rise.

Duncan described how the traditionally easy relationship between reporters and the police – and sometimes between reporters and criminals themselves – has eroded. Gone are the days when information (and a few 20-pound notes) changed hands in the pubs over a friendly pint or two or three. All that was changed by such events as the 2011 News of the World hacking scandal (resulting in the conviction of 11 journalists) and the 2012 Leveson Report that followed, which created stricter regulation of the media. Coverage of criminal trials by the local UK press is down 40%, replaced largely by tabloid-style celebrity stories. More than half of all courts in the UK and Northern Ireland – along with numerous police stations – have been sold off, with several courts turned into hotels. And while the recent rise in murders by gunfire and police killings in the UK pales beside the comparable US numbers, the evolving British criminal justice system is “now appalling”, Duncan said. Paraphrasing Churchill and other notables, he commented that “the test of a country is how it treats crime and prisoners”. 

Duncan’s presentation elicited numerous questions and comments on such related issues as cancel culture and the need for greater police diversity. Sam Laird commended Duncan's extensive research in his two newly updated books on crime and commented on the chapter on Edinburgh's crime history. Jean Hilder asked about the present situation of the Met; Dave O’Connor asked about Ken Drury; Stephen Homewood about the current libel charges faced by Carole Cadwalladr; and Tim Upton about the differences between Spanish and British courts.

The April meeting marked the Book Circle’s return to live meetings, held at Xàbia’s congenial Centro Social, after a two-year hiatus during covid when meetings took place on Zoom.