Thursday, May 17, 2007

Innocent until proven guilty ?

Two news stories in the last few days, one in the national and international media, one local to West Cumbria, have illustrated that the more serious a crime which is being investigated, and the greater the threat which someone may pose to vulnerable people, the more important it becomes to avoid destroying the lives of the innocent by broadcasting accusations which may be false.

I have two small children. Like, I would imagine, every parent in the country I have been following with horror the story of the little girl who has disappeared in Portugal. It's a cliche that what has happened to the McCann family is every parent's nightmare, but it is true nonetheless.

And closer to home, I shuddered like every parent in Whitehaven when I learned that a convicted paedophile who has been released after serving his prison sentence for serial crimes against children was housed within yards of a school and a park.

The safety and security of my children is the most important consideration in my life. Neither I nor any other parent can be fully objective when a threat to our children is involved. That makes it all the more important to ensure that we keep our concerns within the law and do not take action which could rebound against innocent people.

Within hours of the local press revealing where convicted child-abuser Vince Graham was living, he handed back his keys to Copeland Homes and moved. Mercifully he had the sense not to go on the run: Cumbria police know where he is and are monitoring him closely.

Knowledge that that Graham had moved quickly spread round the borough. Unfortunately this had dire consequences for a totally innocent person who moved into Kirkland at about the same time. One of his new neighbours, doubtless acting with good intentions - and we all know which road is paved with those - put two and two together and made five.

Cumbria police have confirmed that Graham is NOT living in Kirkland and a man who recently moved there has no connection with him.

Detective Inspector Walker said "The gentleman at Kirkland has no connection whatsoever to Graham or any members of his family, and he has had a bit of stick so it is worth clearing up. I can say categorically that he has no offending history whatsoever and is of no risk to anyone in the village."

It is not that long ago that a doctor was attacked by a mob of cretins who didn't understand the difference between a paediatrician and a paedophile. Let's be very careful to avoid making any similar mistakes.

Similarly, I am very concerned at the way the media have broadcast details of people who are being investigated by the police in Portugal who are trying to rescue Madeleine McCann. The police have a duty to follow up any lead, no matter how flimsy which might lead them to rescue the missing girl, But it is grossly irresponsible for the British and international media to write up the names and details of people who feature in that investigation in a way which may give the impression, possibly a totally false one, that there is significant evidence against those individuals.

Differences between UK and Portugese law, police practice and jurisdiction, have not helped matters. The first priority for now must be to make every effort to secure the little girl's safe return: it is also important to ensure that the guilty are brought to justice but the innocent do not have their lives ruined. The media should remember that they, and not just the courts, have a moral duty to avoid causing miscarriages of justice.

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