When “The Wire,” the Baltimore-based TV drama series, became popular in Great Britain, Mark Hughes, a crime reporter with London's The Independent newspaper, proposed a job swap with the Baltimore Sun. Hughes wondered whether Baltimore’s real-life cops and criminals bore any resemblance to The Wire's version. The Sun's police reporter, Justin Fenton, went to London for a view from the other side of the Atlantic. Their stories can be seen here.
The Crime Report asked Hughes and Fenton to write about the differences in howreporters cover crime in the two cities. Last week, we ran Mark's contribution. Below is Justin's essay. Please add your comments!
Jet-lagged after an overnight flight from Baltimore, I snuck back to my room in North London’s Kentish Town neighborhood to grab some sleep, and awoke to the sound of fireworks and sirens. I told my new colleagues at The Independent, a national daily paper, that my first reaction as a Baltimorean was that the noise I heard may have been gunshots.
They laughed. The fireworks were from the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations, and besides, I was told, gunshots are rare in that neighborhood.
Five days later, I learned that someone had in fact been killed in Kentish Town on that date, though not as a result of a shooting. The police press release said a woman, Destiny Lauren, had been found dead, and police were seeking clues. Over time, it would trickle out that Lauren was a pre-op transsexual and a sex worker, and had been strangled inside her home.
This slow burn of information was something I experienced consistently during my stay in London, part of an exchange with Mark Hughes, a crime reporter from The Independent who visited Baltimore. While Hughes was getting near-instantaneous updates from Baltimore Police via Twitter, allowing us to visit fresh crime scenes, I was finding out about crimes only when the Metropolitan Police Department wanted the public to know about them.
In an informal chat, a police spokeswoman assigned to chaperone me on a ride-along told me that if the public knew about all the crime going on in their neighborhoods, it would stoke irrational fears.
“But don’t you want to know what is happening in your own neighborhood?” I asked.
No, she replied. If the police needed to put the information out for the public good, then it would get out. Otherwise, it seemed, ignorance was bliss.
An arrest was made in the death of Destiny Lauren, and that’s the last you’re likely to hear about it for quite some time. In the UK, the press is prohibited from reporting on cases once an arrest is made, and that blackout extends up until the trial kicks off. This, I was told, is to ensure that a jury does not walk in with any knowledge of the case and a defendant receives a fair trial.
Blackout on News
I told them that, in the U.S., it is the court’s burden to find 12 people who have not heard about a particular case, and that the screening process extends to other biases. The British courts make sure that the jurors haven’t read a news article about a case, but is news coverage the only bias worth screening out?
I asked if there were exceptions to this blackout. While I was in London, Simon Cowell, or a reference to his X-Factor television program, was on the front page of every newspaper. What if Cowell were killed by a crazed fan? The Independent's editors told me they’d have to restrict their coverage to what U.S. reporters would consider “filler” material, that is, reaction to the death, and background information on the victim. Scrutiny of the suspect, the investigation, and the criminal justice system would have to wait until trial, which could take a year or more. Newspapers that pushed the envelope would face contempt-of-court charges and fines.
However, members of a group called the Crime Reporters Association, whose perks include special access to Scotland Yard, can have access to key facts about a case—but only under special conditions. These reporters are taken into private briefings with senior commanders after press conferences for the general media have concluded, where additional information is disclosed. The information is on the record but may not be taped for broadcast. Members of this group must cover crime for a national news outlet, whether print or broadcast, and pay regular dues. They also are invited to exclusive, members-only events such as happy hours with commanders or detectives. One editor thought this set-up was deplorable. But two reporters told me that they have little choice but to go along with this arrangement or risk losing the access.
As an outsider, I was granted access to the department that I was told few local reporters have received. For example, I had a sit-down interview with Police Commissioner Paul Stephenson, who I'm told had not done any one-on-one interviews since he was appointed in 2008. I also got to spend time with a homicide unit in the throes of an investigation, though the police also sought control over what I wrote.
Controlling The Story
Before entering a morning briefing, a spokesperson required that I sign a form giving police editorial control and final edit over the story. The agreement noted that police did not want information such as witness names, or certain evidence, to get out while the case was still active. I had no problem agreeing, but other stipulations made me uneasy, such as the one that gave them control over factual errors. Who was to say what constituted a factual error? According to the agreement, a senior police commander would mediate any disputes — hardly a fair fight.
Unable to reach my editor over the phone and facing a situation where I’d either sign the agreement or lose the story, I signed. Ultimately, they only objected to one aspect of the story–my identification of the victim as a drug dealer–and we reached a compromise on how I would include that information. But it was the first time I’ve signed over editorial control to a government agency, and it didn’t sit well with me.
This is not to say that there is a lockdown on information in the United Kingdom. While they held off on alerting the media to certain crimes, they pumped out frequent press releases about raids, arrests, and the outcome of cases in court. In addition to spending time with the homicide unit, I went on a Saturday night ride-along in South London’s Brixton neighborhood. The officers were very open and honest and seemed comfortable dealing with the press. The Metropolitan Police Department also has an independent oversight authority that meets regularly and produces informative reports and statistical updates–sources of information that don’t exist in Baltimore. Also, they offer what appears to be a sophisticated crime-mapping tool on their web site to view incidents in your neighborhood.
Although Baltimore may be on the cutting edge in terms of delivering crime updates as they happen via Twitter, city authorities have blocked off the entire department from communicating with the press. with the exception of the public affairs office and pre-approved interviews. The Baltimore Sun recently filed a lawsuit against the department, alleging it has repeatedly failed to respond to public records requests and is charging exorbitant fees.
But for all our gripes about freedom of information in Baltimore, it’s nothing compared to the court-imposed moratoriums that hinder basic reporting in the U.K.
Justin Fenton covers crime for The Baltimore Sun
Photo by Bruno Agostino via Flickr.