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Brian Cathcart

Deepcut: the media messed up

British Journalism Review
Vol. 18, No. 1, 2007, pages 7-12

Brian Cathcart is professor of journalism at Kingston University and a regular contributor to the New Statesman. “Deepcut: Shots in the Dark”, by Heather Mills and Brian Cathcart, appeared in Private Eye in September 2006. The Deepcut Review, by Nicholas Blake QC, is published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, price £55.

Contents - Vol 18, No 1, 2007

Editorial - Back-door raiders 3

Brian Cathcart - Deepcut: the media messed up 7

Julia Langdon - Interview: Sir John Major 13

Dominic Waghorn - Out of China, into the light 23

Trades unions
Paul Routledge - Meeting spin with spin 29

Greg Neale - Growing strong from the Acorn 34

Laurel Maury - It's a fact — Brits don't check 39

Fiona Millar - For the sake of the children 45

Eleni Andreadis and Joe Smith - Beyond the oozone layer 50

Matt Thornhill - Let's hear it for the Boomers 57

Lindsay Nicholson - Can journalists keep the faith? 63

Sarah Niblock - Hacks in the movies: hello Hollywood 69

Bill Hagerty on Peter Stephens 76

Richard Stott on Tony Harcup 78

Julia Langdon on Harry Reid 80

Robert Macdonald on Robert Hughes 82

Peregrine Worsthorne on Tom Bower 84

Michael Leapman on Francis Williams 86

Quotes of the Quarter 6 & 22

Ten Years Ago - The way we were 28

  In spring 2002, researchers from the BBC television programme Frontline Scotland stumbled across what would become a very big story. They were looking into the mysterious death by shooting of James Collinson, a young army recruit from Perth, and they had already established that a strikingly similar death had occurred at the same Surrey barracks where Collinson died, just six months earlier. Then they made their big discovery: there had been not just two such deaths at the barracks, but four. Two young soldiers had died there in 1995, also by gunshot, and also in unexplained circumstances. So began the scandal of Deepcut.

No great insight is required to see why that discovery made it a big story: two may be a coincidence, but four is something else. Four young people (two of them aged just 17) were dead, leaving four grieving families, and no one could, or would, say why they had died (although in one case an inquest had recorded a suicide verdict, the finding was contested, not least because the soldier was shot five times). The possibilities were alarming. Had they been murdered? Was there a serial killer? Were the deaths, whether murders or not, the results of extreme bullying? How had the Army permitted four such similar deaths to occur? And why did the fact that there had been four deaths have to be ferreted out by journalists, rather than being placed on the record by the Army? The testimony of the families only increased the alarm. Officers had seemed remarkably keen, even before any investigations had taken place, to convince them the deaths were suicides. Inquests had been brisk affairs, evidence had been lost or destroyed and there was a powerful smell of cover-up.

Today, five years on, there is a general perception that the Deepcut scandal is over. Many people are under the impression that a proper inquiry has been conducted and that it found that the deaths were suicides. And besides, the affair has been crowded out by Iraq and Afghanistan, which have thrown up a raft of other concerns about the Army. Though the Deepcut families have not given up, editors are now loath to commission articles about the affair; they believe, in rough terms, that it is now history. This represents a triumph for the Ministry of Defence, which in five years never rested in its efforts to kill a story that it would have preferred we had never known about.

This is not the place to explore the arguments about what went wrong at Deepcut and why. Instead I would like, as someone who has reported the case from a fairly early stage, to make an observation about the contribution of journalists. Despite considerable difficulties, journalists did pretty well in pushing the story forward and unearthing new information, though it was always the bereaved families who drove the story. But then I believe we were outmanoeuvred by the Ministry of Defence, tricked if you like, into letting the matter drop. It was a simple trick and I'm not sure what we could have done about it, but I think at least we should recognise that it happened.

Withheld from the public

A little background: after the scandal broke, for 15 months, the Government was able to keep a lid on the Deepcut affair by simple means. The Surrey police, who had botched the investigations of the deaths the first time around (they later apologised), were conducting a re-investigation, and while that was going on ministers systematically refused to comment – the matter was in the hands of the police. Then, in September 2004, an astonishing thing happened. Surrey police completed their report, but did not publish it. All they issued was a four-page press release containing the headline statement that they had not found evidence to justify charging anyone. Since that was all there was, it was all that could be reported – a message superficially reassuring for the public but without any evidence on the record to support it. To this day the full report, reputed to be 2,500 pages long, is withheld from the public, and even the legal teams of the victims' families are not allowed to read it.

The Government, now open to questioning, seized upon this fat document, which no journalist or politician outside the loop had seen, and used it as another smokescreen. In the Commons Tony Blair implied that everything possible had been done to unearth the truth. “There has been a very detailed police investigation of the deaths,” he said, “with about 900 witnesses being interviewed and 1,500 statements taken over 15 months, and we are grateful to the chief constable of Surrey police for his report.” (Readers with long memories might recall Richard Nixon's White House using very similar language to impart credibility to a Justice Department investigation which concluded that Watergate was a simple burglary.)

That the Deepcut affair did not run into the sand right there we owe, paradoxically, to the same Surrey police, who, after burying their report on the deaths, did something both surprising and welcome. In March 2004 they produced an additional report – and this time it was actually published – which opened a new front: it addressed the Army's “duty of care” at the barracks in 1995-2002 and left little doubt that there had been grave failings. A climate existed in Deepcut that presented grave dangers to the young trainees who passed through there, but despite repeated warnings, the Army did not do enough about it. This was what the families, their lawyers and many reporters had come to suspect: the four deaths, terrible as they were, were only a part of the true Deepcut scandal, an extreme symptom of it.

In the months that followed there was widespread outrage, articulated in and fed by revelatory television programmes and newspaper articles, as well as by public evidence to a Commons Select Committee investigation of Army duty of care. Perhaps most shocking was the arrest in 2004 of a former Deepcut NCO, Leslie Skinner, who had exploited his authority to sexually abuse male trainee soldiers at the camp (he was later jailed). Despite the efforts of Geoff Hoon, then Defence Secretary, and his Armed Forces minister Adam Ingram, the scandal would not go away. As the bereaved families drove pressure both within Parliament and outside, ministers looked for a way out.

So was created, in December 2004, the Deepcut Review, conducted by Nicholas Blake QC – and here we are approaching the point where journalism dropped the ball. The Review was conducted behind closed doors over 15 months (once again giving the Government an excuse to bat away awkward questions). It worked entirely behind closed doors, though Blake met the families and persuaded them to co-operate (something they now regret). Then on March 29 last year Blake presented his report (the circumstances were carefully choreographed in that the families were not allowed to speak at the same press conference). It ran to 400 pages, with nearly 2,000 pages of appendices, but coverage of it was dominated by a single newsline: Blake concluded that, on the balance of probabilities, the soldiers had killed themselves. (In fact he dealt with only three deaths, having ruled himself out of commenting on the fourth because the inquest was still pending.) Other angles were covered in the press, in particular some further shocking information about bullying and neglect at Deepcut, but this finding of “probable suicide” was the key message delivered to the public.

So far as news value was concerned, this was what you might expect. The scandal began, after all, with public alarm about the four deaths; here was a conclusion about three of those deaths by a leading barrister. It was the story. And yet much else of vital importance in the Blake report was missed or obscured, including, in my view, shortcomings grave enough to cast doubt on its credibility. Why did this happen? A simple, mechanical reason: there was just one window of opportunity for reporters to write about the report and they self-evidently did not have the time to digest it. In effect, even though some certainly tried to go deeper, journalists could do little more than relay a soundbite, which happened also to be the one the MoD desperately wanted in the public domain.

Every twist of the case

Nothing unusual about that, you may say. Published reports are frequently long and journalists with deadlines are always under pressure to deal with them rapidly – Hutton, Scott and Macpherson were all reported in a hurry and in those three cases we got the message, didn't we? Perhaps, but Blake was different: it had not been a public inquiry. I know from experience that reporters who follow an inquiry that has weighed evidence in months of open hearings are far better equipped to deal quickly with a long report than they were in the case of Blake. There were dozens of Hutton geeks who knew every twist of the case by the time that report came out, and as a result they were able to identify its weaknesses almost instantly. Not so with Blake; there are very few Deepcut geeks, and we are characterised by how little we know, rather than how much.

At the very heart of this scandal has been the withholding of information – reporters, families and the public have been kept in the dark – yet Blake worked in secret, reading secret papers and holding secret meetings, before producing a long report, without an index and with voluminous appendices on disk, in which the cast of players was unfamiliar and even, since he chose to identify many of them by letters rather than names, baffling. For those reasons and because of its structure and writing style it was an extremely difficult document to penetrate. It took me weeks to come to a conclusion about the job Blake had done. By then the news agenda had moved on and the public had registered, in a broad-brush way, that the case was closed. With no knowledge based on daily reporting of how Blake's inquiries unfolded, the public could not follow the evolution of the arguments. In my view, at the moment the 400-page outcome was unveiled, most people were still at square one in terms of understanding the issues. It is even true of the families, who knew the issues far better but were given no time to digest the report before its publication.

There is a message here for campaigners: if at all possible, do not accept or co-operate with a behind-closed-doors investigation. There is also an important message for reporters and editors. Governments, when they think they can get away with it, will use this device again. They will spring a mass of information on us in the knowledge that we have no hope of processing it in time to meet that day's deadlines, and they know as we know that the second and third day's coverage rarely makes the front page. We should be alert to this and should try to subvert it as we do all the other devices of spin.

I need to say, briefly, what I think was missed a year ago. In collaboration with Heather Mills, the experienced crime and home affairs correspondent now at Private Eye, I eventually wrote a lengthy response to Blake, which appeared as a special report in the Eye last September. We concluded that his approach and methods were flawed, that many of his most important findings were not borne out even by the evidence he selected to support them, and that he has not come near to clearing up the circumstances of the deaths. Almost by accident, however, he effectively proved a case of wilful negligence by the army high command, and then let them all off scot-free. A barracks that was supposed to train young soldiers was allowed to become a sewer of abuse and indiscipline over a period of seven years, for no other reason than that senior commanders chose to distribute funding elsewhere. Four deaths made no difference; only when the scandal erupted in public did things change.

I have in my notebook a remarkable quotation from Des James, the father of Cheryl James, killed by gunshot in Deepcut in 1995 at the age of 18. In exasperation at the news fix I have just described, he said to me last summer: “Was it suicide? Who the hell cares?” He wasn't being callous – far from it. Nor was he adjusting his position because of some change in the evidence about his daughter's death, because that remains as unclear as ever. What he meant was that when you realise the state of affairs in Deepcut, you see that the precise manner of the deaths is almost irrelevant. One way or another young people were bound to die in such a place, and the miracle is that there weren't more deaths. That is the message that went astray because reporters and the public were outwitted. Knowing what we now know (and that is still less than half the picture), we should expect people to be held to account. Nobody has been, because Blake let them all off the hook – but it was impossible to convey such a message in short order last March.

All this may be history now – though the families are pursuing legal routes to a public inquiry – but it is not without current resonance. Deepcut was left to run amok by the Army because resources were tight. Just such a squeeze is under way within the Armed Forces once more today and there is no guarantee that commanders will not make the same, potentially disastrous, decisions again.