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John Sweeney

Bucking the system

British Journalism Review
Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005, pages 47-53

The inaugural Paul Foot Award for Campaigning Journalism, organised by The Guardian and Private Eye and supported by the BJR, was won by BBC journalist John Sweeney. His four-year investigation into the injustices suffered by three women wrongly imprisoned for killing their children led to the exposure of erroneous evidence by chief prosecution witness Sir Roy Meadow and his being struck off by the General Medical Council. Sweeney reported on the scandal in seven BBC radio and TV documentaries from 2001, and in several national newspapers, latterly the Daily Mail.

Contents - Vol 16, No 4, 2005

Editorial - Reclaiming the Awards 3

New Orleans
Matt Frei - Life and death in a city unhinged 5

Kim Fletcher - Myths in the making 12

Tom Stoppard - My love affair with newspapers 19

John Cole - Playing with politics 31

Heather Brooke - FOI: turning the tide of secrecy 39

John Sweeney - Bucking the system 47

Stephen Whittle - Journalists as citizens 54

Bill Hagerty - Hall of Fame 58

Deborah Orr - Floundering in the macho media 61

James P Rubin - Putting the world back on the map 66

Gregor Gall - Hard labour 72

Peter MacKay - Editors from A to B 79

Michael Leapman on James Curran/Ivor Gabor/Julian Petley 84

Cal McCrystal on David Randall 86

Stewart Purvis on Tony Grant 88

Mark Bolland on Chris Hutchins 90

Anthony Howard on Richard Ingrams 93

The way we were 38

  In all the best fairy stories there is a sweet innocence, a force for evil and a curse or spell that locks up the innocent. The narrative climaxes with a breaking of the spell. The British criminal justice system and the secret Family Court system — which has the power to take your children from you, forever, on the balance of probability — are in danger of becoming fairy stories that would rather do without the bit about breaking the spell. A bleak history of false accusations against innocent mothers has now emerged — summed up in the appeal of cot-death mother Angela Cannings, when Lord Justice Judge said: “The question is not, ‘who murdered these babies?' but ‘was there a crime?'” To address these horrors, there has been no public inquiry, no display of remorse. Rather, the very people who helped highlight the injustices — the families and the media — have been made scapegoats for conducting alleged “witch-hunts”. Now, the head of the Criminal Cases Review Commission wants to ban juries — and that must mean reporters, too — from the testing in the open of the key scientific evidence.

My philosophy is summed up by the old hack, Guthrie, in Tom Stoppard's play, Night and Day, in which he says: “I've been around a lot of places. People do awful things to each other. But it's worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. It really is. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.” I want every reporter in the country to understand that the plan in our judicial system is to switch that light off.

To understand just how wrong-headed this is, humour me. A plastic fish, a bee, a glass Christmas-tree decoration, a scrabble counter, a wooden toggle, a fridge magnet, an AA battery, a condom, a tiddlywink, a marble, a crucifix and nail clippers. What have they in common? Hands up, anyone? No? Then I shall explain. The first President of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health, Professor Sir Roy Meadow, gave evidence against a series of cot-death mothers. They had all smothered their babies, he diagnosed. Their tears over their dead babies were, it was implied but never stated, crocodile tears. Meadow's logic was simple — it was an adopted rule of thumb that, until proven otherwise, one cot death is a tragedy, two is suspicious and three is murder. They call it Meadow's Law. (These days, some of his many apologists dispute the idea that Sir Roy ever pushed Meadow's Law. The “one, two, three” formula is on page 29 of The ABC of Child Abuse, edited by R Meadow, in a chapter written by R Meadow. I wonder if they are, by any chance, related?)

Drive and passion

The first middle-class mother to find herself on the wrong end of this particular fairy story — because there is no laboratory science to back up Meadow's Law whatsoever — was Sally Clark, a solicitor, married to a solicitor, the daughter of a policeman whose best friend was one of the best media lawyers in the country. Sally, with all her intellect, coupled with the drive and passion of her husband, her whole family and friends, could not break the spell of false accusation. The chances of two cot deaths in a middle class family like her was “73 million-to-one”, Sir Roy told the jury. She was convicted in 1999 and went to prison for child murder.

Perhaps the most famous of Meadow's accused was Angela Cannings, who lost three babies, so that had to be murder. She was convicted in 2002, and spent 500-odd days in prison. But the first innocent mother to fall under the spell was a working-class, unemployed woman from Taunton, Donna Anthony. She was convicted in 1998 and spent six years in prison for murder. She lost two babies, Jordan and Michael, and that, therefore, had to be suspicious. A case conference was called, with the police and experts present. Sir Roy led the argument. Notes from the conference report: “Professor Meadow informed the group...that this appeared to be a typical case of smothering by the mother... He said that he could not envisage any natural circumstances which might have been responsible for the children's deaths.”

Sir Roy was, at the time, the greatest expert on child abuse in the land. On baby Jordan, he told the jury: “I do not find the circumstances of his life or his death are likely to have been caused by natural illness. On the other hand, I find that the circumstances of his life and death are typical of a child who has been smothered and thereby killed.”

Jordan was a girl.

The expert wasn't that expert. It's not that surprising that Sir Roy got Jordan's sex wrong. He never met Donna Anthony before diagnosing her as a killer. He just read the case notes, inaccurately. If I had made that kind of mistake on the Sheffield Telegraph, I would have been out of the door.

One issue at Donna Anthony's trial was the presence of a button in baby Jordan's tummy. The tummy was virtually empty apart from the button. The absence of food in the tummy and the lone button raised the possibility for one defence expert that the button could have jammed the baby's windpipe and caused Jordan to stop breathing. Dr Ian Rushton, a Home Office pathologist, said: “Jordan was fed three hours before — and the tummy empties in three hours. That means that the button could only have been in the tummy around the time of death. It's highly possible that the button got lodged in the baby's windpipe, killed her, and then got released when the paramedics did CPR.” Jordan died just before her first birthday. She had a history of stopping breathing. So was an accidental cause of death possible? Sir Roy told the jury: “You then have to say how likely is it that the child can pick up this small object, put it in the mouth, transfer it to the back of the mouth and then suddenly die of natural causes within the next four hours before it is passed from the stomach? You are going into incredible unlikelihoods, really, here.”

I've got two kids. When they were little, they were always popping things into their mouths. For BBC1's Real Story, broadcast in 2003, we checked baby Jordan's notes. She passed her development test when she was nine months old. She could pick up a button. We asked a real expert, a baby less than a year old. I put down a button in front of him and he picked it up so quickly the cameraman almost missed the shot. The soundman had a packet of Cadbury's Buttons on him. We poured them out on a towel and the baby wolfed the lot, proving Professor Sir Roy Meadow completely wrong. For the hell of it, I asked a chum at BBC1 Real Story to check it out one little bit more. She came back with the Government's home accident survey. Doctors in casualty up and down the land had fished out from the tummies of babies less than a year: a plastic fish, a bee, a glass Christmas-tree decoration, a scrabble counter, a wooden toggle, a fridge magnet, an AA battery, a condom, a tiddlywink, a marble, a crucifix, and nail clippers.

So what Professor Meadow told the jury in Donna Anthony's case in 1998, long before Sally Clark and Angela Cannings went to jail, was, on his home ground of paediatrics, untrue, inexpert and perversely wrong: a fairy story. Professor Meadow told fairy stories about Donna, and Sally and Angela and a host of mothers in the secret Family Courts. In the secret system, where reporters are banned, I would single out his evidence against “Karen Haynes”, a mother whose first child died in hospital. Meadow told Mrs Justice Bracewell that the baby had died as a result of delayed smothering. Karen's second child was taken away at 25 minutes old and forcibly adopted. Birmingham Social Services are now planning to take away her third child, forever, on the basis of a judgment informed by Meadow's evidence. There is evidence that his assertions to the court were perverse – but to report it is against the secrecy laws of the Family Court system. Suffice to say that when Professor Meadow told the judge that the Modified Glasgow Coma Score (MGCS) was not an internationally-accepted scientific system, he was wrong. He also forgot to point out that the MGCS was used at his hospital, on some of his patients. On this evidence, Karen has lost one surviving child for good and is about to lose the second.

Powerful friends

This summer Meadow was struck off the medical register for his misleading evidence in the Sally Clark case. He is appealing the verdict, and he has powerful friends on his side. The Lancet, the voice of the medical establishment, roared “foul”. So did Raj Persaud, the Gresham professor for the public understanding of psychiatry and, according to recent allegations in The Guardian, a quondam plagiarist. Persaud wrote an article in Prospect, headlined “Roy Meadow is innocent”. He trotted out a line from The Lancet that all Meadow had done was quote “73 million-to-one” from a published government report. Wrong. The report had not been published at the time of the trial. Meadow chose to leave out a rubric to the (wrong) statistic, saying that it excluded genetic factors. The defence at trial never saw the rubric, thanks to Meadow's selective quoting.

The Observer, the paper for which I worked for 12 years, often in some not very nice places, published under the headline “An ill-judged case” the view that “ 72-year-old Meadow had “been made a fall-guy” and that “something akin to a witch-hunt began...for the way he used statistics in his role as an expert witness... Meadow got the statistics badly wrong, but that doesn't mean he is unfit to practice.” I disagree.

Meadow was struck off because he passed himself off as an expert, while expertly missing out the inconvenient facts. The rest of the report from which Meadow plucked “73 million-to-one”, as the GMC heard ad nauseam, set out the wholly-opposite proposition to his evidence in particular and to Meadow's Law in general, that once you had suffered one cot death, the chances of a second were more likely. Using “73 million-to-one” in a cot-death murder trial was like plucking out a single statistic from a paper on smoking and cancer telling you that the connection between the two was astronomically unlikely. What kind of a “witch-hunt” is it that sees Sir Roy lecturing child abuse junkies in Santa Monica in early 2005, and Donna Anthony in Durham prison's lifer wing? What's the difference between a conference in southern California, and living under Rule 43 for six years? Who is the witch and who the witch-finder?

Whatever happens to Meadow's appeal against the GMC verdict, he is unlikely to give evidence again. So, that's all right then? No, it is not. Graham Zellick, Professor of law and chairman of the Criminal Cases Review Commission, told The Guardian recently that evidence in some alleged childabuse trials — for example, so-called “shaken baby” cases — is so mind-bogglingly complicated that the jury (and, obviously, reporters) should leave the court while the judge looks at the matter with two experts.

Hold on, hold on. There are innocent explanations to so-called “Shaken Baby Syndrome”. Babies can stop breathing because they have been accidentally jolted, or for no reason we understand — which is a far cry from abuse. I know the author of the most brilliant papers on neuro-pathology and “Shaken Baby Syndrome”. She calls the syndrome “crap”. The thickest jury on the planet can understand that. In the cases of Sally Clark, Angela Cannings and Donna Anthony, it wasn't the jury that gave “manifestly wrong” and “grossly misleading evidence”. It was the expert. So why should the remedy for “expert” errors be to ban the jury from testing them and the media from disclosing them? With all respect to Professor Zellick, his comments go to the heart of the current crisis of false accusations. Some experts — if that is what they are — provide criminalising diagnoses, of great complexity. Others experts disagree. In the middle of this publicly-funded argument, the people who know the accused most intimately are discarded. Why so?

Prof Zellick is proposing that we go further, and exclude the jury and the media from the key tests of the criminalising diagnosis. I propose exactly the opposite, that the families and friends of an accused person should be actively brought into a case and the jury required to consider their expertise. If properly explained, a jury can understand complex arguments. It can factor into its judgment the evidence in the round — and if that includes a dozen family members and friends all saying they don't think for a moment that a Sally Clark killed her children — so be it.

Enormously impressed

I am arguing this point through personal experience. Four years before Sir Roy Meadow was struck off I met people who told me he was talking rubbish. In 2001, three separate people shoved me in the right direction. The first is the Man In The White Suit, deeply in hock to Britain's dry-cleaning industry. Martin Bell was Sally's MP. He said the conviction was unsafe. The second was the Reverend Pauline Pullen, a tiny Anglican vicar who was visiting Sally in prison. She told me: “No one inside thinks she's a killer. Not the screws, not the governor, not the fellow prisoners.” The third was BBC radio producer Bill Law — all grit, pure oyster — who had told me the story, only I didn't believe that a professor and a knight could get it wrong until I heard it from an Anglican vicar. Bill turned out to be right.

No reporter can master every detail of every story. But a half-decent reporter — even a frequently half-cut shambles like me — can make a judgment about character. I was enormously impressed by Frank Lockyer, the proper, old copper who was Sally's dad. Through Frank I got to know his best friend, John Batt, a lawyer plucked from the 18th century, whose intellectual and moral authority unpicked much of Meadow's nonsense. Mike Mackey was the solicitor running the case, a man with the face of a battered angel who seemed grievously wronged with what he told me was the worst injustice he had ever known. I've got to know Steve Clark, Sally's husband, slowly, over time. He is a man to go into the jungle with. Together, as a group of people, I found it very hard to believe that they were all wrong. They knew Sally intimately as a wife, a daughter, a friend, but the system had preferred the evidence of an expert who had never met her. The conclusion had to be that the expert and the system had got it wrong.

I met Angela Canning's husband, Terry, her mother and father, Steve, an ambulance man, his new wife, and Steve's mate, Roland, also an ambulance man. I met Angela and Terry's best friends, and watched their endless holiday videos. I got to know Angela's solicitor, Bill Bache, and his legal assistant, Jacqui Cameron. Again, all the people who knew Angela intimately told me they didn't believe she would have killed her babies — “She loved them too much.” Donna Anthony's lawyer, George Hawks, passionately argued the case for her innocence. Her best friend, Toni Caswell, was emphatic: Donna loved her babies. There came a point when I wondered to myself: why is the system not listening to these people, the friends and family? Reporters do it, because it's their job. Well, it's the system's job, too.