RANDOM BOOK REVIEWS

Occasionally I come across that most transitory of literary contributions – the journalist’s book reviews. Here are a few dredged up from the past.

IN SEARCH OF THE RAINBOW’S END: The Inside Story of the Bamber Murders by Colin Caffell, 1994 REPORTING CRIME: The Media Politics of Criminal Justice by Philip Schlesinger & Howard Tumber, 1994 THE SACRED AND THE PROFANE by Desiree Ntolo, 1994 MELTDOWN: The Collapse of the Nuclear Dream by Crispin Aubrey, 1991

DO AS YOU WOULD BE DONE BY In Search of the Rainbow’s End: The Inside Story of the Bamber Murders By Colin Caffell, Hodder & Stoughton 1994, £14.99 [For The Journalist]

Colin Coffell’s ex-wife and their twin six-year-old sons were murdered in August 1975 along with Sheila Caffell’s adoptive parents. This book deals with the author’s excruciating ordeal in coming to terms with the tragedy. And with the way the press covered it.

Every national paper ran with the story that Sheila Caffell, a fashion model wit a history of mental illness, had killed her sons and Nevill and June Bamber, then turned the gun on herself. And they misrepresented the circumstances that surrounded the subsequent funerals.

Gloating reports linked the “Killer Mother’ (or ‘Bambi’ as the paper’s misnamed her) to a wild life of drugs, discos and clubland. But within a month a new sensational broke.

The Daily Mirror reported that the police suspected her of drug-trafficking, and then that she and her family ‘could have been massacred by a mafia-style hit-man’ because ‘the 27-year-old beauty owed drug barons £40,000’. A Daily Mail story implied that Clin Caffell might also be involved in drug dealing. 

By this time Sheila Caffell’s brother, Jeremy Bamber also adopted, had appeared in court charged with stealing money from the family’s caravan site earlier in the year. The following week The Sun revealed that he had tried to sell ‘sex snaps’ of his dead sister. It was he who had called the police to the family home where the five bodies had been found. Reased on bail he took a holiday in St Tropez. On his return he was arrested and charged with all five murders.

Bamber was convicted a year later and sentenced to a minimum of 25 years. After his conviction the newspapers wrote of women who ‘drooled over his dark, charming good looks’, described him as ‘cool right to the end’ and ran kiss’n’tell stories about his sex life. And they continued to carry lurid and inaccurate stories about Sheila’s sex life, building upon earlier fictions.

Colin Caffell has found his own way of recovering from the trauma and is now a talented sculptor and counsellor. But he remains bitter about the way the press besmirched this dead wife’s name.

The Sun, Mirror and Mail traced and disclosed the identity of both Jeremy and Sheila’s natural parents, for which they were reprimanded by the Press Council 

Colin describes some of the foot-in-the-door techniques employed by tabloid hacks to gain access to his family and friends, and asks: “Who the hell is responsible for all this? Is it purely down to the business of selling more newspapers than the competition…. or is it the product of a sick society that demands it?”.

He rejects the notion that ‘the only morality (journalists) present is by implication’ or that ‘The press print a collection of short statements and ‘facts’ not necessarily true or even connected and allow readers to draw their own conclusions.’ He believes that the press ‘are fully aware of the perverse morality they are selling, and knowingly lead their readers to the conclusion they want’.

Some may find his story uplifting, others will find it too much to bear. But the lessons for journalists are clear: get it right; check it; and offer people at the centre of such tragedies the respect and dignity you would expect if something similar happened to your family.

That does not mean abandoning a healthy scepticism about  peoples’s motives untll the full facts are known. But jumping to conclusions, or being led to them by unwise or incompetent police informants is no way to run a newspaper.Colin Caffell may not be ready to forgive those who compounded his grief and anger , but at least he has done us the favour of explaining why he holds journalists in such low esteem. ————————————————————————————-

SKULLDUGGERY Reporting Crime: The Media Politics of Criminal Justice by Philip Schlesinger & Howard Tumber, Clarendon Studies in Criminology, OUP, 1994, £35 

Schlesinger and Tumber have blown the gaffe on the complex process of media management that now constitutes crime reporting.

Gone is the hard-drinking, unlikely-raincoat brigade that haunted the scenes of crime and shared seedy hotels with the men from the Yard. Gone are the ’golden days’ when capital punishment added a macabre final flourish to the sordid trials of murderers.

In have come the (mostly) men in suits, on all sides of the equation.

Since the ’Marksist revolution’ of the 1970s, when the Met’s Commissioner Sir Robert Mark decided to feed information to journalists ’ subject only to judicial restrictions, the right to individual privacy, and the security of the state,’ the police have become sophisticated managers of the media. Trained senior police and civilian press officers now have a far better understanding of what journalists need – which is not to say that they always oblige.

Meanwhile white collar crime is on the increase and the legal profession has assumed a high public profile, along with plethora of penal reform organisations who also know how to get their messages across.

And there has been a significant shift in ‘quality’ coverage of crime typified, according to the authors, by The Independent’s decision to launch without a traditional crime correspondent but to share the load with a Home Affairs team, and competition for readers who make their living from the law.

Certainly crime, policing and the criminal justice system have become highly politicised, with terrorism adding a new dimension to the genre. The Home Office continues to set the terms of debate, and specialist reporters are needed to write with authority about policy and practice.

Through interviews with all the main players (excepting the criminals), Reporting Crime describes the peculiarly symbiotic relationship between those who police us and those who report about them; those woo make and those who administer the law; and those who seek to change the way we perceive, crime, punishment, the offender and the victim.

It contains two detailed piece of media analysis. One concerns the acquittal of a white police officer who shot and disabled a black woman, and introduces a suggestion that the public fear official violence as much a violent crime, An equally revealing study of an horrific ‘sex killing’ highlighted the power of ‘voyeuristic forms of reporting‘ to awaken fear and pander to male fantasies.

Most people believe that regular foot patrols would at least offer some reassurance, but the police appear to engage more readily with the public via programmes like Crimewatch than they do on the streets. Then they blame the media for creating ‘ fear of crime’ by reporting cases they have flagged up for public attention.

Yet journalists appear to be split between those like a former President of the Crime Reporters’ Association who said “We are all pro-police here”, and the hack who objected “Hold on a  sec. I’m not pro anybody. I’ll do a story as I see it’.

Although some may find their conclusions dense, and query whether the state apparatus and the media merely operate by a system of convoluted signals with meaning only to power elites, this instructive volume would be of value in any newsroom and on every journalism training course.

It teases out some of the vexed questions that remain to be answered about the murky world of police-press relations. —————————————————————–

HERE’S MUD IN YOUR EYE, Ms AMIEL The Sacred and the Profane by Desiree Ntolo, University of East London New Ethnicities Unit, 1994, £3 [For The Journalist]

Desiree Ntolo hit the headlines in 1992 event he tabloid applied their sorry racist wit to the saga of the Oratory she constructed in the back garden of  her Redbridge council house. She is Black and Jewish, an Essence who built her place of prayer from mud with her own bare hands.

She naively believed that publicity would help her in a dispute that appeared to have been manufactured by the local council to do away with her ’mud hut’.

The Sun followed up its (inaccurate) first story, headlined ‘NICE MUD HUT WITH ALL MOD CONS’, by sending down a Sky satellite dish (to a building without an electricity supply) for a second ‘exclusive by Nick Parker, ‘MRS MUDDY GETS A BUDDY’

The Daily Star went with “DES RES IS A MUD HUT ON DAGENHAM’ and send down two ill-matched double-glazed windows. Their victim realised what was going on and told the reporter he should pay for wasting her time. The Star hammered her temerity under the headline ‘MUD HUT MUM BEGS FOR CASH’.

But by far the most disgraceful slur came from the lofty heights of Barbara Amiel’s column in The Sunday Times. ’HERE’S MUD IN YOUR MULTI-CULTURAL EYE’ nnnounce the quality paper, ‘An African hut in a British garden symbolises the madness of immigration without assimilation’.

 Ariel advised the mother of six, a former teacher from Cameroon,‘ to buy her own plot of land somewhere in the civilised or uncivilised world… One cannot sympathise with her doing it on land she does not own’ and recommended that Desiree move to the Outer Hebrides.

Amiel’s ‘think piece’ combined all the essential ingredients of racism – condescension, cruelly, ignorance and insult. It was based entirely on cuttings assembled by her research assistant. 

Perhaps the celebrated ex-columnist, and wife of Telegraph-owned Conrad Black, will have the decency to a apologise once her researcher has read Desiree’s poignant account of her ancestry and religion. Ariel is Jewish and was reportedly devastated when she realised who she had pilloried. And what will she have to say about the typically British compromise reached by the courts in Desiree’s tussle with Redbridge planners. Having found against the Council they ordered that Ms Ntolo be allowed to rebuild her Oratory – provided it was encased in concrete,

The Sacred and the Profane is a very slim volume, but serves as a useful reminder that often there is a far better story behind the headlines than beneath them. 

However mud sticks and when local papers recently reported that an unrelated domestic tragedy had befallen her family, Desiree was again branded the ‘Mud Hut; woman. Referring back to their original story the Dagenham Post even got the date wrong by two years! What price accuracy?

Luckily Desiree refused to to remain a victim of press abuse. I am pleased to serve with her on the committee of PressWise, set up to improve journalistic standards and now working with the NUJ Ethics Council.e

Footnote:  The oratory was never rebuilt. Two TV production companies had offered to film Desiree’s reconstruction, but one went ahead and made a prize-winning silent film based on the myth that she had been trying to connect her children with their African roots. It was broadcast before any work had started and the other company pulled out. ————————————————————-

POWER FROM THE PEOPLE Meltdown: The Collapse of the Nuclear Dream by Crispin Aubrey, Collins & Brown, 1991, £6.99 [For Socialist June1991]

This is the most heartening book I have read in ages. it is a refreshing reminder of the snowball effect of successful collective action, faith in the face ope adversity and absurdity and wit in opposition to the wiles of powerful elites.

Meltdown is about three kinds of power: that of the nuclear industry; the fallout when things go wrong, and commitment to a non-nuclear future.

Crispin Aubrey traces the activities of protect groups who have nibbled so successfully at the colossus of the pro-nuclear lobby that few people in Britain can now put a convincing case for atomic energy.

He focuses on the public inquiry into plans for a third nuclear power station at Hinkley Point in Somerset. Aubrey describes his visit to Chernobyl, the campaigning activities of Stop Hinckley Expansion, which he ran with Danielle Grunberg, and the farcical public inquiry that fell apart as the government realised that no self-respecting capitalist would take responsibility for nuclear energy given the astronomical costs of decommissioning.

Pressures on privates energy industries to rake in short-term profit must be countered by consumer demand for greater energy-saving initiatives,

Local authorities can play a significant role by reinstating home insulation subsidies, building energy efficient council homes and demanding diverse and localised energy sources.

Perhaps the best tribute to those Somerset villagers who took on Hinkley C, and the thousands who died or lost their livelihoods to the nuclear nightmare would be for Crispin Aubrey’s fascinating study to generate a campaign itself.   ————————-                                                                                                            

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