When even the power of media isn't enough

It has been announced today that no criminal charges will be brought against any police officer relating to the death of Ian Tomlinson.

Mr Tomlinson died following the G20 protests on April 1 last year. Although police told his family he had died of a heart attack after getting caught up in the demonstration, a video was later released (below) which clearly showed him being violently shoved to the ground from behind by a police officer.

A second post mortem was carried out at the instigation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) and the second pathologist decided that he had died from internal bleeding. Incidentall, the pathologist who carried out the first examination is currently suspended pending an investigation into matters not related to Ian Tomlinson but which call into doubt his professional ability. A second video was then given to Channel 4 (below) which showed Mr Tomlinson being struck by a police officer before being shoved to the ground. It was then clarified that Mr Tomlinson had no role in the G20 protest and that he was just returning home from his job as a newspaper vendor.

It is clear for all to see and has been in the public domain courtesy of the media and social media - YouTube providing the video and Twitter, Facebook et al linking to it. So how can there be no charges?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) statement can be read in full here but it boils down to the following paragraphs.

"Having analysed the available evidence very carefully, the CPS concluded that there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of proving that the actions of PC 'A' in striking Mr Tomlinson with his baton and then pushing him over constituted an assault. At the time of those acts, Mr Tomlinson did not pose a threat to PC 'A' or any other police officer. "

It continues:

"A conflict between medical experts inevitably makes a prosecution very difficult.... As a result, the CPS would simply not be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was a causal link between Mr Tomlinson's death and the alleged assault upon him. That being the case, there is no realistic prospect of a conviction for unlawful act manslaughter."

Common assault does not require proof of injury, but it is subject to a strict six month time limit. That placed the CPS in a very difficult position because enquiries were continuing at the six month point and it would not have been possible to have brought any charge at that stage.

"The Court of Appeal has held that: "The threshold is a high one requiring conduct so far below acceptable standards as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder."...As a result, we have concluded that the conduct of PC 'A' did not meet the high threshold required to constitute the offence of misconduct in public office."

So in essence: the videos showed that a police officer assaulted Mr Tomlinson and that, as the victim of that alleged assault, Mr Tomlinson was not threatening the police officers in any way.

However, because two doctors have different opinions, because the CPS dragged its heels during the investigation and because, in the opinion of our judiciary, a police officer striking an innocent man with a baton and forcefully shoving him to the ground is not far below acceptable standards of an office holder, no charges are to be brought.

I am against trial by media in general terms. The principles of our legal system: innocent until proven guilty, tried by a jury of our peers etc are strong indicators of a democratic society.

But this case and way the incident was played out in front of those involved in both the mass media and social media, has shown that the legal system is weighted too strongly in favour of those enforcing it. We can see for ourselves the moment that a police officer crossed the line from being an upholder of law and justice to becoming little more than a thug lashing out at anyone close to him.

Citizen journalism at its finest and at its most powerful has provided the CPS with the evidence it needs to secure a conviction yet it will not even begin a prosecution.

I have no doubt that the officer had no intention of killing or even seriously injuring Mr Tomlinson and I know from my experience as a crime reporter that situations such as these are incredibly difficult for even the most experienced officer.

But can we as a society allow such a thing to happen? Mr Tomlinson appeared to be an innocent man in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was on his way home from his job as a newspaper vendor.

He also appeared to be vulnerable as witnesses report him appearing confused before the incident and the post mortem examination showed that he was suffering the effects of prolonged alcoholism. In short, he was a man the police should have been protecting from the unruly elements of the G20 protests.

We need to wait and see what the IPCC decides will happen to this officer next but, even in the view of the CPS, the assault upon Mr Tomlinson appears to be a criminal act and it deserved a legal response.

If a man who was accidentally caught up in the protest dies in this manner without anyone involved in the circumstances leading up to his death seeing the inside of a criminal court, then the message that has been sent out that this country's legal system actively supports the use of violence in the face of public protest.

This will run and run and I suspect that anniversary protests/memorials will get uglier and uglier and all because justice has not been served.

What next? Will a man be shot dead on the underground for having dusky skin during a time of heightened anti-terrorism awareness. Oh, hang on...

The silly season and a confession

Well, the silly season is almost upon us once again and I am eagerly anticipating a rush of typical stories to accompany the time of year.

For the uninitiated, the silly season refers to the end of July and August - a time when the schools break up, the courts slow down and parliamentarians take a break. All of this, tradition tells us, leads to a news vacuum where news editors cannot find a story for love nor money and go to increasingly desperate measures to fill pages.

Of course, around the world there is a great deal of news going on but our nationals, particularly those of the tabloid persuasion, do not believe that foreign news is suitable for these shores. In the regions, if the reporters hit the streets, do research and work contacts, there is a wealth of strong news stories to be had but apparantly but there isn't the time for that as storied must be churned out to fill a notional news quota.

So you can anticipate red herrings - wildly exaggerated guesswork on future Government policy for example - and plenty of animal stories. Animal stories always do well in the silly season, whether it's black panthers on the loose, dolphins capable of complex sign language or even this legendary (if somewhat belated) 'Squirrels on crack'.

The squirrel story is a classic of our times and I am only amazed that it didn't contain a quote from Bill Oddie or Kate Humble to add further authority to the shocking revelation.

I have to admit to being sucked in by the silly season myself as a young reporter on the Derby Evening Telegraph.

In desperation I was drawn to a black panther story. With a willing accomplice in the form of a game-for-a-laugh police sergeant, I managed to spin out a 'genuine sighting' into a rolling story worth three page leads, four anchors and countless news-in-briefs. In hindsight I do feel some guilt about the matter as embellishing the truth (alright, telling outrageous porkies) is in reality just making fools of your readers.

A good PR professional can make hay during silly season and, as a former news editor, I can confirm that the press releases I dreaded for 10 months of the year were seized upon with glee during the silly season.

I remember the phone calls well:

"What's that you say about a man from Oxford [insert town of your choice] betting £100 that aliens will land on earth before Swindon [insert rival of your choice] win a major footballing trophy? I'll have it"

"A list of the most amusing (and not at all made-up) insurance claims? Sounds like a double-page feature to me."

Of course, a lot of this is built upon the central premise that breaking news is something which happens - ie a court case finishes, parliament makes an announcement etc etc rather than being something that is uncovered. Journalists today are so used to having their agendas written for them that the idea of breaking free is fading fast.

There is news out there. It's just that the British press has become so fixed in its ways that it is difficult to see the wood for the trees sometime - I should know, I was in that forest a long time and only rarely glimpsed genuine timber.

If only the barriers could be shifted somewhat and we could see some intelligent analysis. Instead we get patronising (but amusing) garbage during the summer months as editors wait for the obligatory 'phew what a scorcher' moment accompanied by pictures of young ladies in bikinis.

Easier said than done of course and news editors frequently rely on the equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel to appear to have done some 'investigation'. That means we can expect a good number of stories about, for example, motorists on mobile phones (complete with picture gallery)and cyclists jumping red lights (complete with picture gallery).

A classic in the shooting fish category also occurred in Oxford when a senior newsroom member who shall remain nameless (but has now left) got very excited by bike thefts in the city. He ordered a reporter to leave a bike unlocked and in plain view and 'stake it out' to see how quickly it was stolen. He was a bit excitable and was convinced the headline would read 'Gone in 60 seconds'.

However, a week later the bike was still there; untouched and unloved. For all I know it is still there and the real story is one of the local paper fly-tipping.

Mind you, finding these stories isn't plain sailing and it would be a cop out of me I didn't suggest at least a couple of ideas I might like to pursue. Not complex but better than making stuff up or going for the same old targets.

1) If WiFi is the next big thing (and I assure you it is with the iPhone and Androids becoming increasingly important), why not check out how much of your city/town is covered?

2) We've just come out of recession and are facing 'austerity measures' but how much debt would you be able to get in one day. Send a reporter out to see what they can get in terms of credit and store cards. It won't matter if it is a lot or a little - the story is still there.

Give me shout if you spot any silly season corkers.