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Thursday, November 29, 2007 

Us? Demonise Colin Stagg? We're innocent!

Look, he's got a shitty tattoo! He must be weird!

Not a single word. Not a single fucking word. For ten years they vilified him, haunted him and demanded that the law on double jeopardy be repealed so that he could be tried again. In his own words, he was, as the Sun and Daily Mail happily quote, "a national hate figure. I had to endure every form of vilification. I was insulted, attacked, spat upon. My home was attacked and so was I." They made sure of the fact that despite having the case against him thrown out, with the judge describing the way the police went about entrapping him as "a substantial attempt to incriminate a suspect by positive and deceptive conduct of the grossest kind" that it was instead seen as being as a result of a technicality. There was no other evidence against him of any sort, only that he, through the attempts by the young, attractive police officer to entrap him, had came to fit the profile which the psychologist Paul Britton had drawn up for who he thought the murderer was. The only thing he was guilty of was being a lonely, outsider type figure: flattered, and desperate for his relationship with the undercover police woman to continue, his innocence ought to have been obvious from one of his taped conversations:

"Please explain, as I live a quiet life. If I have disappointed you, please don't dump me. Nothing like this has happened to me before."

Colin Stagg will be used to the treatment still today being meted out to him by the tabloids. Of the three that continued to pursue him over 10 years, not a single one can bring itself to admit its own role in the vilification, abuse and hatred which they helped spread towards an innocent man. In the world of the tabloids, you shouldn't expect a mea culpa unless you resort to the likes of Schillings or manage to get a complaint adjudicated by the supine and toothless Press Complaints Commission. You would hope however that they might feel the odd pang of guilt themselves over how they ruthlessly ruined a man's life and made him into both a pariah and a untouchable, perhaps amounting to a small amount of hand-wringing or a mealy-mouthed half admittance that they got it horribly wrong.

Not a bit of it. If anything, the Daily Mail, Stagg's chief persecutor, is still treating what happened to Stagg as a personal "claim":

Mr Stagg claims the CPS, the Met and a Cracker-style criminal profiler were wrong to target him during the first probe.

A leaked internal CPS report on the collapse of the trial made an astonishing attack on Mr Justice Ognall, the judge who threw out the case against Mr Stagg after criticising the honey-trap operation involving a blonde undercover policewoman known as Lizzie James.

Mr Justice Ognall told the Old Bailey the tactic was 'a substantial attempt to incriminate a suspect by positive and deceptive conduct of the grossest kind'.

But the CPS report said the judge had an unfairly 'disciplinary approach' towards the police and, after hearing how they gathered their evidence, was 'determined to stop the prosecution'.

The judge has of course been proved to be absolutely right in his assessment of the prosecution case against Stagg. While not quite of the same order, other recent cases where those on trial have been somewhat entrapped include the Victoria Beckham kidnap plot that never was, as well as the "red mercury" trial, both of which were orchestrated by Mazher Mahmood for the News of the World, and found wanting in almost every way. Instead of accepting that Stagg's "claims" are not exactly what happened, the Mail quotes the CPS's self-serving refusal to countenance that the Met investigation and general incompetence in fact enabled the real killer to quite possibly murder again.

The Sun's coverage is, if anything, even worse. It similarly quotes Stagg's interview given, but even after all this time it still refuses to describe Stagg as anything other than a "weirdo":

Local oddball Colin Stagg was charged with her murder following a honeypot sting by police using an undercover policewoman who tried to coax details from him.

Ah yes, the local "oddball", so often the easy person to pin an unsolved and difficult case to crack on. It happened with Barry George, and it'll happen again. The difference is that almost no one believed that George did it, apart from the police and Nick Ross, while Stagg endured years of torment because the police were more effective in convincing the media that he was the one who'd got away because of the judge's bias against the prosecution.

The Express is the only newspaper not to go out of its way to either still paint Stagg as weird or go above the board of duty to give the benefit of the doubt to the police's original case. It does though quote a laughable Scotland Yard spokesman:

“The investigation into the murder of Rachel Nickell has always remained open and subject to ongoing reviews."

Someone ought to tell that to Paul Condon, who as head of the Met made clear that they weren't looking for anyone else, despite the case against Stagg being thrown out.

None of the papers managed to find any space to quote in full the interview that Stagg gave to yesterday's ITV News. While he seems to have found it within himself to forgive the police, he showed no such compassion towards the media, who it was clear he holds responsible for his treatment since the case was thrown out at the trial. And who could possibly blame him? When it was announced that he would be receiving compensation, rather than admit they'd got it wrong, both the Mail and the Sun ran articles comparing his likely pay-out to that given to Rachel Nickell's 2-year-old son, with the Sun condemning it in a leader column. Never was it admitted that if they hadn't so demonised the man that the payout might not have been so high.

Such is the nature of our tabloid media. Their bread and butter is the high profile crime stories, the more sensational the better. Yesterday saw the conviction of the killer of Laila Rezk, who was battered to death in her home a year to today. Both the Sun and the Mail described the likely killer as a "deranged, stalking maniac", with the Sun the next day breathlessly reporting that "THE killer of glamorous mum-of-two Laila Rezk is a twisted sex beast." The reality was rather different. Rezk's murderer was an 19-year-old burglar on an electronic tag, who apparently picked Rezk's home at random to rob, found her at home and beat her to death, altering her clothing to leave the impression of a sexual motive. He had shown no previous inclination towards being capable of the horrific violence used on that day, with him today sentenced to life, to serve a minimum of 18 years. It's hardly the first time the tabloids have got it so horribly wrong; something the families of Rochelle Holness
and Janet Hossain can testify to. Apologies, if any are issued, get completely buried, while the hurt and continuing pain at losing a loved one is only exacerbated by such egregious mistakes. At least in those cases the families themselves are not the actual target; Stagg was never able to prove his innocence against such a backdrop of media prejudice.

Some often doubt the power of the media or the idea that half of the stuff printed in the tabloids is ever believed by anyone. Polls showing trust in tabloid journalists lower than in that of estate agents suggest that such views are more than warranted. The hounding of Colin Stagg, as well as that of Maxine Carr, which has led to the vaguest of lookalikes themselves being subjected to hate and being in fear of their lives at the hands of baying mobs, not to mention the notorious Portsmouth anti-paedophile protests in the aftermath of the News of the World's name and shame campaign shows that tabloid editors are more than aware of the way their words can lead to actions that might not have intended, but could more than imagine might well happen as a result. I'm most certainly not suggesting that tabloids should moderate their language; far from it, although I will continue to criticise the ridiculous caricaturing of all those convicted of crimes as "villains". They should however when they get things so horribly and unforgivably wrong apologise about it, own up to it, and make clear that they will not repeat such things in the future, or carry apologism for doing so. They have the power to ruin lives, and they need more than ever to be accountable. At the moment they, like so many others, appear to reject that they have such responsibility as a whole to society.

Related posts:
Rhetorically Speaking - Pride of Fleet Street
Enemies of Reason - The Stagg Hunt is Over

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Great post, that I very much agree with.

Can I ask your opinion on a idea I've had sitting around for a while? Any apology given should be on the frontmost page that was used to present the material for which an apology is issued.


I'm personally partial to the Grauniad's system of having the corrections and clarifications column right next to the leaders, where the voice of the paper is. I think there should certainly be a turn to box on the page where the inaccurate article appeared though.

Completely agree with this. It was disgusting the way Stagg was treated by the tabloids, and I fail to see why only the Met should be liable to pay him damages. Surely he has excellent grounds for libel against every newspaper that befouled his name, branding him a loner, a weirdo and so on.

Really just shows you that tabloid journalists are indeed, as Rachel Nickell's ex-boyfriend put it, "Callous, mercenary, unfeeling ... cowardly, snivelling scum".

I'd love to see all the papers involved sued. I've had enough of newspapers and their pompous writers, editors and reporters. I just read blogs and internet news these days.

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