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The Case of Rough Justice

Peter Hill

By Peter Hill on 14/07/14

The Case of Rough Justice
“Rough Justice”, which was first commissioned by the BBC in 1978 and which I produced until 1986 certainly had an influence on the system of justice in England and Wales. Most miscarriage of justice programmes prior to it were the television arm of campaigns waged in the newspapers or in books.  â€œRough Justice” was not a campaigning programme. It did not deal with “famous” cases. It showed  ordinary people unjustly jailed.

The programme came about because of an internal war inside the BBC.  The Controller of Channel one – later Managing Director of TV, Bill Cotton wanted all serious Current Affairs moved from BBC 1 onto BBC2.  â€œNewsnight” was created. As a sweetener he gave Current Affairs the “Cotton Concession” – 12 half hour programmes on BBC 1, in groups of either 3 or 4. “Rough Justice” became one of them.

I worked  in Current Affairs – on “Panorama”. I had been making investigative programmes for almost a decade – helping to put men into jail.  â€œNewsnight” wanted me as head of the investigative unit, but the methods of News producers did not suit me. However, I was forced to join it.  I immediately went to see Tom Sargant, the aged secretary of JUSTICE, a legal reform group. I then wrote a brief to my head of department for a new programme – “Rough Justice.” 

My approach to miscarriages of justice was novel. I applied the same process I had used for investigations over the previous decade. First, I collected and read every relevant document I could find. Then I set about looking at the evidence as if I were the first policeman on the scene. This technique often suggested areas that the police had not investigated properly, or even got wrong. 

Then I introduced a series of “hurdles”. First I had to win over my presenter Martin Young, then our lawyer – and finally a senior retired judge. If we passed this ultimate test, we went ahead with a script. 

It was never as simple as it may sound. The police opposition was phenomenal. We automatically built into our investigations defences to protect both ourselves and our witnesses from their accusations. On one occasion I was reduced to telephoning from our BBC accounts department because I calculated that the BBC accounts department was surely safe from wire-taps. 

The main element I brought to the work of Tom Sargant in JUSTICE was the emphasis I placed on forensic science.  In those days the police had a contempt for forensic scientists. Sheer ignorance sometimes showed in the manner in which officers dealt with scientific evidence. I think that our work helped the introduction of identification suites and SOCO suits.  

But the biggest change was the change in mood of the nation. No one had ever made such programmes routinely - three programmes in a weekly series.  There had been a general feeling that the British System of justice was the best in the world.  If the odd verdict was quashed, it was generally thought to be because of a technicality. The people now knew differently.  

The turning point, oddly, came when the then Lord Chief Justice Lord Lane decided to kill the programme off. He used the appeal of Anthony Mycock, transmitted in 1985, to destroy us.  He had to grant the appeal – the evidence of miscarriage was overwhelming – but he used his judgment to slander us, hiding behind his judicial privilege.

To do this, he happily “believed” more than twenty lies from the woman who had fitted up Anthony Mycock. He happily believed false evidence from police officers.  He took words in our interviews out of context to suit his own purposes. 

It was an outrageous display which did not go unnoticed. It was the first nail in Lord Lane’s coffin and led to a change of mood among lawyers and politicians. It was no coincidence that Lord Taylor later succeeded Lane. He had been at Lane’s side during the Mycock appeal and had witnessed just what Lane had done. 

The BBC however had to take Lane’s accusations seriously – I left the programme, though I continued to work in Current affairs as a senior producer until I retired in 1999. The programme was moved to a different department.

The setting up of the Royal Commission on the criminal justice system and the creation of the Criminal Case Review Commission can be traced directly back to Lord Lane’s ill-judged outburst against “Rough Justice”. Oddly, however, the changes eventually killed the programme. The point had been made.  

There have been moves recently to revive it. Some of the old faults have surfaced again. The CCRC is composed of lawyers who think as lawyers. There is no real investigation going on. 

The demise of the Forensic Science service has also been a bad blow. Investigators searching for “fresh evidence” are invariably pushed into “novel forensic science”.  This is forensic science that has not been tested in the courts. The police rarely use such scientific evidence, and defence teams are often unaware of the possibility of such being within the evidence in CPS files.  And yet DNA and suggestibility scales, both common in courts today, were “novel forensic science” two decades ago.

We need to do more. For example, the estimation of time of death is crucial in any murder investigation. Yet novel means of establishing it by examination of fluid in the eyes are totally ignored. Such analysis of lachrymal fluid has been known of for several years. But there is more recent research which is valuable. 

After death, there are many physical and biochemical post-mortem changes which progress in a fairly orderly fashion until the body disintegrates. In the past few months, the work several scientists in the University College of Medical Sciences in India has shown that there is a significant positive relationship between time of death estimates and the level of potassium in the clear gel that fills the space between the lens and the retina of the eyeball. 

I doubt that we shall see any fruits of this research in our courts in the next twenty years.  Samples are easy to take during post mortems, but there are no regulations or checklists that force pathologists to take them. 

Government’s cuts have also taken us back to the situation of the early eighties. Police officers do not use forensic scientists as much as they might – not because they look down on them as they once did – but because they cannot afford them. Defence lawyers are in a similar position. Innocent people may be accused and convicted as a consequence.

According to CCRC figures, something like two innocent people are currently being jailed every six weeks.  They have a means of getting free again – but it often means a fractured family, poverty, depression, and a hatred of the system of justice. AND it takes about five years.

It should not need to be like that.

Peter Hill was a BBC TV Current Affairs Producer for 30 years. He originated “Rough Justice” in 1980 and produced a dozen editions before leaving in 1986. He retired in 1999.