The curious case of the media silence
This blog post follows on from yesterday’s review of the acquittal by a jury of the ‘High Down 11’ on all charges of prison mutiny. As regular readers will be aware, these eleven prisoners were involved in a protest against poor conditions and very restrictive regimes at HMP High Down, a Cat-B establishment in Surrey.
During the course of this important three-week trial at Blackfriars Crown Court, much relevant evidence was called by the prosecution on the background to the prisoners’ protest which took place in October 2013. This included explanations of how the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has imposed national benchmarking on prisons and how the so-called New Ways of Working system has impacted on staffing levels, regimes and prisoners’ access to amenities such as showers, gym, exercise, association and payphones, as well as reducing opportunities to participate in work and education at the prison.
As I mentioned in my last post, even High Down’s governing governor, Ian Bickers, ended up in the witness box explaining to the judge and jury how government-imposed changes implemented in September 2013 had impacted negatively on his establishment and its inmates. He observed that governors have lost much of their autonomy over daily regimes and also included a very candid admission that the MOJ has admitted that it might have ‘got it wrong’ over low staff numbers at High Down.
This, in itself, could be considered a pretty ground-breaking state of affairs, because in effect, many aspects of the impact of New Ways of Working could be said to have been on trial. Was the prisoners’ protest – which wasn’t violent (at least not until the Tornado Team were called in to break it up) – a legitimate and justified way of complaining about conditions that were becoming intolerable? Certainly the jury’s unanimous not guilty verdict might suggest that it was, in their eyes at least.
In common with most readers, I consider this information – much of which it should be remembered was given as evidence on oath in a major criminal trial – would have been of public interest, not least because it is the taxpayer who is picking up the bill for Chris Grayling’s flights of ideological fancy and Daily Mail headline grabbing efforts. Yet to date, the only newspaper to have covered the story – and its journalists have done it brilliantly – is the local Sutton Guardian. There hasn’t been a whisper about the case anywhere else other than on blogs and social media. Why?
Had the eleven cons been convicted last week of prison mutiny, they could have expected to receive hefty additional terms on top of their sentences of up to a maximum of ten years each. I’d say that in itself was newsworthy at a time when there is mounting public concern over the way in which UK prisons are being run. Whenever there has been a serious assault at a prison, it seems to make the news whether the alleged victim has been a screw or a con, yet a mass trial – perhaps it wouldn’t be unfair to dub it a ‘show trial’ – involving eleven prisoners gets passed over in almost complete silence.
Not even The Guardian, which has a decent prison and probation section, as well as several ex-cons writing regularly for it, has managed to publish a single word to date about the High Down 11 trial, the important evidence called, the acquittals of the accused on all charges and the wider implications of the jury’s verdict for the way in which the Prison Service handles non-violent protests by prisoners whose repeated and often justified complaints are simply being ignored. Frankly I find it astonishing that media titles that are normally falling over themselves to highlight the latest gaffs and policy disasters to engulf Chris Grayling and his dysfunctional MOJ remain silent over this case.
The Daily Mail, which is normally quick to give cons a good bashing at every opportunity, has also been conspicuous by its silence. There have been no snide editorials about the High Down trial or complaints over the acquittals and the risk of further disturbances in prisons. It is almost as if the entire event, from protest to trial, has been airbrushed out of history, no doubt much to the relief of Mr Grayling, the government and the Prison Service, not to mention the Crown Prosecution Service.
Of course, it is just possible that all the national media titles and news channels completely missed the story and have failed to appreciate its much wider significance for penal policy in the UK and the right of prisoners to engage in legitimate protests. Occasionally big stories do slip through the net or under the radar, particularly when trials take place months after the original incident. I accept that this omission could just be a massive cock-up, but I’m not convinced about it.
Or has some form of D-notice been issued to silence everyone in the mainstream media (other than the brave little Sutton Guardian) just in case wider protests by cons against poor prison conditions are encouraged and the safety of the state endangered? I don’t know about you, but I think we should all be told.
Courtesy of Alex Cavendish at Prison UK: An Insider’s View