Public interest. Ltd

17 years ago I was the manager of a record store in central London which was one of the busiest in the country. From a shop which was the size of your average living room we would regularly out sell the megastores down the road particularly when it came to the big releases of the day. For example I remember that during the height of Brit pop we shifted more copies of Oasis’s ‘Whats the story, morning glory’ than the virgin megastores managed to and when the video for ‘Independence day’ came out we sold more than any other store in the country during it’s first week of release. Getting daily deliveries of upwards of 30 box’s of CDs and DVDs created logistical problems for storage which to be honest we never really successfully dealt with except that just about every nook,cranny and crevice in the building as well as the those in our sister company just a bit further up the concourse was stuffed with as much stock as we could lay our hands on. I became remarkably adept at finding ways of being able to not only display it,but also store it and from time to time no matter what we did, all of us working there would end up using boxes of stock as make do chairs as we had to get rid of most of our stools and chairs to make room for it. Once, With a busy bank holiday weekend approaching I took some petty cash out of the till and purchased 4 massive, virtually trunk sized plastic storage box’s to store excess stock in under the permanent racking that ran the length of the store and for a couple of weeks this provided us with some room to move around behind the counter and in the staff area. Even though I had legitimately taken the cash I hadn’t accounted for it properly in the weekly banking which resulted in our regional security managers turning up one day and suspending me while a hearing took place to establish whether I had been guilty of theft. During this week long investigation my team were informed of what was happening, my two team leaders, Les and Lisa, were instructed to take over my duties and word quickly spread,inaccurately and prematurely, that I had been sacked for gross misconduct. During my disciplinary hearing I was unable to convince security that I had been guilty of nothing more than failing to follow the processes correctly and although the till balanced and there was no evidence of theft, it was decided that I was guilty and therefore sacked on the spot. Naturally I appealed, but I lost and eventually took the matter to acas but the best I was able to get was an understanding that when a future employer wanted a reference, mine would simply say that I left for personal reasons. About 10 years later I got a friend request on facebook from an old colleague from that time who told me that whilst my case was being investigated, my line managers were busying themselves telling everyone that I was guilty and arranging my replacement,so clearly it was never going to be a fair trial so to speak. But what really annoyed me about this conversation was that everyone whom I knew from that fairly close knit business where I knew people in virtually all of our locations, where informed of my “guilt” without me having the chance to explain myself and my name was tarnished and the door behind me was shut for ever. It’s true what they say.. Mud sticks.

6 months passed before I got a ‘proper’ job and during that time I did a series of rubbish ones just to bring in some money. Looking back at that time now its true to say that although it was a time of upheaval and hardship it took my life in a new and better direction and maybe it’s true that good things sometimes come out of adversity. The reason I’m mentioning this now is that I was reading the newspaper reports of a number of high profile news events of the last few months and its got me thinking about the lack of any right for a person accused of a crime to remain anonymous until either charged,convicted or acquitted. Michael Le Vell is a cracking example of someone who clearly should have been afforded the right of anonymity as should anybody else being accused of the same heinous crime. Sadly though, the newspaper industry decided that the chance to sell thousands of extra copies was too much of an opportunity to pass up and having one of the best known British soap actors on your front cover for weeks looking stressed and distressed while being accused of child rape is clearly good for business. This very public reporting of the trial and alleged crimes was justified as being of public interest and therefore we were treated to what amounted to nothing more than salacious accusations and hysterical reporting day after day until he was found not guilty. Then it appears that the public interest in his innocence is not exactly worthy of as many column inches and by day 2 of his acquittal the press had got bored and moved on. I suspect there isn’t as much money in innocence. And so what are we left with? Well until the end of time he will be known as the guy who was accused of interfering with children and I’m sure some brain dead buffoons will regard him as the bloke who got away with it but his reputation will be tarnished for forever. Now you might read this and think that as he was found to be innocent that things will go back to normal, but I doubt if they will. Ask yourself this question.. would you let him babysit your children? It will be argued that the public have the right to know and media types will put forward a strong case for a free press which is free from political interference which will be self regulated and therefore highly valued.

To be honest I don’t really disagree but the way I see it is this. I’m not the slightest bit interested if Le Vell or anyone else is innocent of any crime be it a big one or simply a minor misdemeanour, but I am interested in it if they are guilty. But while the courts operate on the presumption of innocence until proven guilty it seems that the media, driven by the need to make a profit, are promoting the presumption of guilt before a trial has even taken place. With things never likely to change for the better I think it should be the case that anyone accused of a crime that would be put before a criminal court should be automatically afforded the right to anonymity. This right could of course be given up at anytime by any individual should they wish to waive it and if they are subsequently found guilty it should be made public that they had requested anonymity in the first place. These rights should be enshrined in law to the same degree as contempt of court is. It seems that if you’re a super rich footballer you can afford a so called super injunction to keep yourself clear of the press but anyone on a less extreme income can’t.

It’s not just celebrities that end up with lives ruined because of false accusations. Some ordinary people have become infamous because of false accusations made against them too. Colin Stagg was ruined by the police and the media before being wrongly accused of murdering Rachel Nickell back in 1992. As part of the police investigation he was publicly outed as being a lot of a pervert who was encouraged to divulge fantasies of rape to an undercover policewoman posing as a potential love interest who was egging him on to come on to her by faking some fairly sick fantasies of her own. In an attempt to appear to be on the same page as this woman sexually and to try and have a bit of rumpy pumpy with her, he went along with it and unwittingly made himself prime suspect in the murder case. He will always be associated with this crime, so much so that even now, 20 years after her murder if you google Colin Stagg the first thing that comes up is a picture of Rachel Nickell. And the papers were so upset with his acquittal that they moaned about his compensation! Barry George spent 7 years in jail wrongly convicted of being the killer of Jill Dando , but leading up to the trial and indeed after it he was subjected to a complete character assassination on behalf of the tabloids and it’s not an unreasonable suggestion that this could have been avoided if he had of had a jury that hadn’t been bombarded by stories of his weirdness prior to his trial. And this month Christopher Jeffries who was arrested in connection of the disappearance of Joanna Yeates in 2010,finally received an apology from the police after his very public arrest and trial by tabloid made him the most hated man in the UK. He himself has only just this week called for changes in the law to allow anonymity until a formal charge is made. It’s interesting isn’t it that the “hang ’em” brigade go ever so quiet when confronted by stories of wrongful conviction. They should be reminded that even though medical science leaps forward at a seemingly quickening pace, it’s still a lot easier to release someone from prison than it is to dig them out of the ground after an execution. Saying sorry to a corpse doesn’t really make a great deal of difference. And the media still believes it to be good business to plaster the front pages with these stories and care not a single bit if they get it wrong and even on the rare occasion that they apologise, it’s always always printed in an obscure part of the paper, usually next to a story of a water skiing squirrel or an agoraphobic scarecrow.

My wrongful conviction that I spoke about earlier cost me my job and indirectly my home. I went through a period of depression, relocation and a lack of personal self worth. Sure, things got better but that’s only down to my own dogged determination to keep things going and improve things for myself. I was lucky that my case wasn’t being played out in front of the insatiable appetite of a cash hungry press and I couldn’t even begin to contemplate what it must be like to be publicly outed despite being totally innocent.


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