This article appeared in 1996 - and was largely the work of Bob Woffinden, a noted journalist dealing in miscarriages of justice. Peter Hill's wrote it, and had his name was attached to it because Bob Woffinden was deeply involved in a court case concerning the problem of visiting prisoners inside jails.
A prisoner considers him or herself to be the victim of a miscarriage of justice. The appeal has been lost and the judicial processes are exhausted. What can be done? The convict is told that to have the case considered by the Home Office new evidence must be found. That cannot be done from a cell - and it is specialised work. The prisoner needs someone who will re-investigate the case, interviewing witnesses, finding new theories. Most solicitors cannot do any of this without first obtaining legal aid - and that will not be given in such circumstances. The only realistic answer is for the prisoner to contact a journalist who specialises in miscarriages of justice.
This is by no means as straightforward as it might appear, particularly if the prisoner has no family members to help. He or she may write to a particular journalist; but the journalist will usually want to see the prisoner in person before taking the matter further. That would be more than a sine qua non of responsible reporting. There is also an added factor - the journalist will be devoting a large part of his time to the investigation and possibly large amounts of money which can only be recouped if the story "stands up" and an article or a TV programmes is eventually made. So one of the key questions when such an investigative journalist first considers a case is - how truthful and reliable is the convicted person? Is he or she worth the gamble? The best way to decide is to do what Tom Sargant always did - visit the prisoner.
At this key moment in the process the problems begin. The Home Office maintains that a journalist may not visit a prisoner unless he or she first signs an undertaking not to publish any part of the conversation between them, or anything that has been gleaned in the course of the visit. As a device for both emasculating the journalist and preventing the prisoner's case from reaching the outside world and becoming a cause celebre, this ruling is just about foolproof.
Last year I visited Anthony Steel who has been in prison since 1979 for the murder of a young woman in Bradford. I am firmly convinced of his innocence and have worked on his case for some ten years. This was the first time I had ever visited him - and it was not "on business". I was visiting him on a purely personal matter involving his daughter. However, after my visit, a vicious retribution was exacted on Steel - because, I believe, he sent a Visiting Order to someone later identified as a journalist specialising in miscarriages of justice.
Steel was accused of "flashing" a woman from his cell. Without a hearing, he was moved to a tougher prison and put in isolation without any privileges - no mail, no visits. Finally he was moved to a prison more than a hundred miles further from his family. His solicitor investigated the accusation - no accuser was ever produced and the prison priest supplied Steel with an alibi.
A similar case was experienced by my fellow-journalist Bob Woffinden. The author of one of the most authoritative books on the subject - "Miscarriages of Justice" ( 1987), Bob also produced a Channel 4 documentary about the Hanratty case which has led to it being re-opened. In January 1995, he wrote an article for the Independent about the case of Ian Simms, convicted of the murder of Helen McCourt in Billinge, Lancashire, in February 1988. It was a case in which the body was never recovered, and there were many reasons to doubt the conviction, not least the total absence of any motive.
After the article was published, the then-director of the prison service, Derek Lewis, informed Woffinden that in future he would not be allowed to visit Simms, unless he first of all gave an undertaking not to write anything.
Woffinden decided he was not going to sign anything that he wasn't going to be able to honour. The only journalist probing Ian Simm's case, he knew that if he effectively ruled himself hors de combat by agreeing to Derek Lewis's demand, there would have been no one to listen to Simms and help him. Simms received very few visits from anyone other than Woffinden.
It was the prisoner himself who then took the next move. He explained the problem to a solicitor, Adrian Clarke of Bindman's, who took counsel's opinion. The upshot was that Simms sought a judicial review of the actions of the prison authorities and the Home Office. He successfully applied for legal aid to pursue the case, and in July leave was granted. The judicial review will now be heard next month. Derek Lewis's actions actually produced a successful claim for legal aid - something Simms had never even dreamed of.
Another similar action has been joined up with the Simms case. It is the case of a prisoner called Michael O'Brien who was visited by a BBC journalist. O'Brien is one of three convicted of the murder of a Cardiff newsagent, Philip Saunders, in October 1987. A BBC Wales documentary, "Week In Week Out", put a persuasive case for their innocence.
In respect of the inhibitions on journalists publishing anything conveyed to them by prisoners, the Home Office argues, broadly, that there are no restraints on correspondence, or on contacts with a prisoner's family and friends. They add that these channels provide satisfactory and adequate means of communication; and that to allow journalists to visit prisoners would be to invite scurrilous media articles based on interviews with high-profile prisoners, which would cause enormous distress to victims and the bereaved.
For their part, those seeking a review of the rule argue:
- that the present provision in the Prison Rules is technically illegal, because it constitutes a breach of the 1952 Prison Act, which stipulated that prisoners should be allowed as much contact with the outside world as was practicable;
- that it is an unreasonable inhibition on freedom of expression for prisoners;
- that the doctrine of sound reporting is to rely on first-hand testimony; the legal process does not accept hearsay evidence, and neither should professionally rigorous journalists;
- that it is no comfort whatever to victims or the bereaved to have an innocent person imprisoned for crimes against their family. Far from causing additional distress, journalists are simply trying to mitigate it, by ensuring that the investigation of the crime is properly resolved.
- that the present arrangements do little to prevent the high-profile cases from being publicised; and that in any event, most of the truly notorious criminals are Category A prisoners, whose visits are specially screened;
- that a journalist, merely through visiting a prisoner, may come to fulfill a pastoral as well as a journalistic role; thus the Home Office, by cutting off the visits, is also denying the prisoners pastoral care.
Both Simms and O'Brien already appear to have suffered by making this stand and bringing this action. Almost as soon as leave was granted, both were moved to different prisons, in each case further away from family and friends - just as in the case of Anthony Steel.
The judicial review was heard on Thursday 12 December 1996 - and the judges found in favour of Woffinden. However, on a later appeal the decision was reversed. Simms began an appeal to the House of Lords and by May 1998 it seemed certain that the Lords would accept the case for consideration.
The situation regarding the right of prisoners to talk to the Press is still unclear - and recent events concerning a book about a convicted murderess Mary Bell, for which the ( released) convict was paid, has made the situation even less clear.
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