Uses of covert journalism and criminal justice accountability

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This paper has three sections to answer the question. Firstly it focuses on the three documentaries mentioned in the brief and to assess their media impact. The second section in the paper presents an additional investigative journalism piece on the impact of investigative journalism in raising the issue of miscarriages of justice for the convicted 'Birmingham Bombers' of 1974. The final section discusses the advantages of investigative journalism with reference to academic materials. The overall conclusion brings the paper together to show how investigative journalism creates accountability within criminal justice by spotlighting core issues of great public importance.

Racism; policing; sexism; investigative; journalism; documentary.

Executive Summary:

There are three inherent sections which come together to show how investigative journalism plays an important role by creating an accountability mechanism within criminal justice when traditional methods fail. The paper shows that although controversial covert journalism plays a spotlighting role for issues such as racism and sexism within policing and has a core role for raising public awareness.


This report will form three parts. Section A will concentrate on the actual content of the documentaries compiled by the investigating journalists. Analysis will be presented on the presentation of the issues of racism and sexism within policing in the UK. Additionally, there will be an analysis of the impact these investigative documentaries had on the wider media coverage and secondly on the official policies pursued in their aftermath. Section B will concentrate on the use of covert journalism elsewhere within criminal justice. This selects the use of investigative journalism programme produced by the BBC called Rough Justice and will specifically focus on its focus on the wrongly convicted Birmingham Bombings suspects. Investigative journalism exposed that police had significant failures in how they secured convictions through extracted confessions and improperly obtained evidence. The net effect of the programme was to contribute significantly to their retrial which subsequently found a miscarriage of justice. Section C will be the final section which will comprise an assessment of the advantages and disadvantages in using these forms of media exposure to try and secure better accountability and transparency within criminal justice agencies, specifically focusing on its likely benefits and limitations in achieving action on key dimensions of racism and sexism.

Section A:

The first documentary conducted by Mark Daly from the BBC 'The Secret Policeman' focused primarily on the Greater Manchester Police Force in to order assess whether there was any racism in the attitudes of police recruits and to investigate whether the police had implemented any polices to counteract the threat of racism from within the police force. (Daly 2003; 1). Whilst the MacPherson Report identified a number of failings within Policing in the UK, it concluded that the police as an institution had become 'institutionally racist' in practice. (MacPherson 1999; 46.1). Manchester Metropolitan Police were selected by the journalist because they represented the second largest police force in the UK which would represent a good sample for the journalist to investigate whether the police were still institutionally racist. The journalist, Mark Daly, infiltrated the policing ranks by successfully applying and becoming a trainee recruit and acting in the undercover role as trainee police officer for over five months. This approach facilitated a 'view from within' police training and allowed a fully covert and undercover operation to assess both senior police attitudes on training recruits and secondly to assess new recruits attitudes on racism.

The journalist was able to report upon how some of the new recruits had extremist racist views that not only coloured their training but also when many progressed to police officers on the street they used race as a key determent in exercising their public duty as a police officer. Overall Mark Daly's 'The Secret Policeman' shows the problem both with the recruitment of trainee officers and secondly how the practices of training failed to ensure police officers left their training bases with a balanced approach to exercising their public duty as police officers. Additionally, the report exhibited a core problem within the discretionary nature of policing in practice, in that if racism is left unattended, police officers with racist viewpoints can in fact target racial minorities in an unjustified manner causing not only discrimination but a breach of core human rights values in a democratic society.

The undercover investigation received mixed reports in the media in that the official response from police ranks were of 'shock' and 'awe' both at how the investigate was able to take place and secondly at the racist remarks made by some of the trainee police recruits. (BBC 2003). Additionally, a spokesperson for the Greater Manchester Police commented in the Daily Mail that they were concentrating their efforts on how the evidence was gathered. (Daily Mail 2003a). It is interesting to note that the primary response from the police was to focus their attention on how the journalist was able to firstly penetrate the application procedure and secondly collect covert recordings in and around the training grounds and on police missions. Further, the official response from the Home Secretary David Blunkett was to suggest that the journalist had directed the production of the evidence in such a way that allowed Mark Daly to create and not necessarily report on what was actually going on within police training. (Daily Mail 2003b). This approach by the official responses to the documentary centred upon attempts to discredit the production of a purely investigate insight to the internal working of police training. Rather than focusing on ways and methods to reduce racism within policing selection and training, the police focused their attention on attempting to prosecute the journalist for his endeavours at highlighting core deficiencies within policing.

The stopping of the prosecution of Mark Daly received coverage in many newspapers including the Guardian and the Telegraph. (Cozens 2003 and Telegraph 2003). The overall impact of the investigate insight conducted by Mark Daly resulted in five police officers quitting their role as police officers. (Politics 2003). This shows that whilst the MacPherson Report represented the first significant official report on policing taking a retrospective view of police practice. Daly's investigative journalism was compelling from the perspective of gathering and presenting real data and real evidence of actual racism in its purest form. However, it is worth noting, that as the BBC received such criticism for reporting on such issues in the manner of using covert journalists, it subsequently reviewed its editorial rules for the production of such covert based investigations. (Timms 2004; 1).

The second documentary is a follow up by Mark Daly to his first report by examining the failings inherent within the policing structure and took a less controversial approach of interviewing senior officers and ordinary police officers within police forces across the UK. The documentary represents a 'snap shot' of opinion of those officers in senior ranks towards their impressions of racism and the barriers inherent within the policing structures for the progression of ethnic minorities. It also presents analysis on how hostile the policing environment can be towards ethnic minorities.

The final documentary focuses specifically on the sexism experienced by female police officers from other male officers within the police working environment. The manner in which the journalist presented the information is similar to that of Daly's first documentary in that they have collected live evidence of actual occurrences sexism within policing through the use of covert recordings. Additionally, the documentary shows the inherent failing and dereliction of duty by many police officers in the Leicestershire area in attending to their public duty. Overall, the presentation of the evidence shows that being a female police officer defines their job differently to male officers. The treatment towards women is often to objectify them within a predominately male environment.

The three documentaries form together to highlight the real nature of racism and sexism within policing and further highlights the negative impact of prejudice in the exercising of a public duty. The nature of the presentation of the data can be considered controversial in that collecting interviews covertly on sensitive issues such as racism and sexism shows the cold reality of prejudice within a core institutional public body. Whilst the greatest impact of the documentaries has been to cause or at least bring about the removal of some of the offending officers but the core problem of racism and sexism within an institution such as the police can only ever have limited effect in bringing about real change across the broader spectrum of policing in general.

Section B:

The miscarriage of justice in the UK in criminal trials in the mid-1970s appeared to be common place with a significant focus on achieving prosecution for high profile crimes regardless of whether the right offenders were targeted. (Lennon 1991). The focus of achieving the result of prosecution was directed by the police in collecting or 'manipulating' evidence to suit the crime and to suit the offender or to engage in such practice which would allow the extraction of a confession from the offender. (Kennedy 1991; 312). Further the ability of the police to manipulate evidence was facilitated by a weak criminal justice system which did not investigate the inadequacies of police investigation techniques. (Mullin 1986; 114).

In response to a large number of claims of injustice and miscarriages of justice a number of investigative journalists focused their attention on a number of specific trials to try and investigate whether there were any miscarriages of justice. (Ibid). In examining these cases, the BBC's journalists put together a programme Rough Justice under Peter Hill which brought together the work of the investigative journalists to expose a major flaw within British criminal justice leading to a number of miscarriages of justice. In particular one of the cases investigated by the programme were the convicted defendants accused of the Birmingham Bombings in 1974 and the Guildford and Woolwich Bombings in 1974. The entire case was built around fabricated evidence, extracted confessions and poor police practice. (Mullin 1986; 110). It was evident for many years after the initial trial which successfully convicted the innocent defendants that the police, the Home Secretary and the Director of Public Prosecutions knew the convictions were unsafe and the identities of the real bombers were fully known to them. (Ibid). It is argued by Lennon (1991) that the protection of the legal system was more fundamental to the police, the Home Secretary and the DPP rather than opening a retrial. (Lennon 1991). The preferred option from the official circles was to ignore the reality of an unsafe conviction in favour of protecting the ideals of 'British justice'.

The first transmission of the BBC's Rough Justice programme was aired in 1982 which examined the cases in-depth focusing on the evidence used to convict the targeted offenders of the bombings. It is interesting to note that the journalists were first treated with complete scepticism from official circles. (Young and Hill 1983). Additionally, the journalists became the target audience for the police and obtaining copies of statements and case files were made incredibly difficult. (Sargant 1985; 237). The focus of the documentary was not to concentrate on opinion but rather to focus on facts which support their conclusion that the police had extracted confessions from the offenders by force and facilitated evidence for the conviction. (Young and Hill 1986). As a direct result of the presentation of fact by the investigative journalists the Home Secretary was compelled through media spotlight to reopen their case before the Court of Appeal which subsequently found that they had been wrongly convicted. (de Burgh 2007; ch 13). As a direct result of the investigative journalist approach in presenting clear facts on the miscarriages of justice it directed help to focus attention and highlight the grave unjust practices of the police in wrongly convicting individuals. In the absence of media focus and spotlight the issues of the miscarriages of justice would mostly likely never have been uncovered and pursued.

Section C:

Investigative journalism occupies a distinct genre of journalism and acts as a vital means of accountability in particular issues. (de Burgh 2008; 3). It is implicit when examining section A and B above, that investigative journalism has a core basis - the right to investigate particular issues, to expose the realities of practice and to spotlight core deficiencies within society. News stories are not only entertaining but can also inform the general public of what is happening in a particular field. (Stevens 2011; 39). The effect of these types of news stories, such as investigative documentaries is to lead towards a crime narrative or a spotlight narrative on a particular issue. (Ibid). In particular the above documentaries in section A highlight particular truths about racism and sexism within policing and in particular the failings of the police institution to combat racism and sexism throughout its ranks, ultimately failing to reflect the society that it represents. The effect of investigative journalism on criminal justice and public opinion can be enormous by both influencing public opinion and 'whistle blowing' on core problems inherent in society. (Marion 1995; 111). This can be evidenced by the official responses to racism within policing and the focus of redeveloping police training to give greater credence to racial education.

In particular investigative journalism has the inherent ability to determine if any wrong doing has taken place. For example in Mark Daly's 'The Secret Policeman' clearly shows that some police officers are highly racist in not only their viewpoint but in their fulfilment of their public duty as a police officer. The second Panaroma documentary followed up this theme highlighting that the structures within which policing operates does not facilitate an even playing field for the progression of all officers from all ethnic backgrounds. Similarly the third documentary also shows the wrongfulness of police attitudes to female officers in the police.

It is the explicit nature of the content of these documentaries in bringing to the public's attention the social contexts of racism and sexism and the realities of policing in practice. (Jewkes 2011: 193). It is evident that many criminologists approach the topic of police race relations as being one of the most problematic components of the criminal justice system. (Wilbanks 1987; Mann 1993; Walker et al 1994). There have been numerous studies which show an historical conflict between the police and ethnic minority communities have has played a central role in the difficulty in distinguishing a small minority or troublesome ethnic communities with the vast majority of law abiding ethnic minority communities. (Tonry 1995; 87). The primary advantages of investigative journalism highlighting core racial and sexists problems within policing and criminal justice is to spotlight specific areas of conflict. The documentaries show the specific problem with the recruitment and training of police officers in addition to the overall institutional structure of police contribute to allowing racism and sexism take a hold within policing. The limitation however, is the speed of change that can come through the spotlighting of such issues. The core limitation is how the investigative journalism can affect change within policing generally. Although the follow up documentary conducted by Mark Daly shows that change is happening slowly within policing structures but the overall difficulty is that change is extremely hard to deliver.


It is evident from the studies in Section A and B that there is a common trait which runs through investigative journalism. The journalists can be considered a right to investigate because of the greater importance of bringing these issues to the forefront of public awareness. Similarly the response to covert journalism follows a similar pattern through each of the documentaries. Firstly there will be an official denial of the existence of the issue or that the issue portrayed is highly exaggerated by those conducting the documentary. This will be followed by an attempt to discredit the members of team conducting the interviews by either attacking them personally or their professional stance on the subject. The final stage is the partial admission stage that there may be an issue and procedures to effect change will be implemented in order counteract any potential problem. In final conclusion it is evident that the investigative journalist role within spotlighting these issues of racism and sexism within policing create an accountability mechanism when the official criminal justice channels fail.