Covering Crime In Britian Is Different Right From The Start

Crime: A Tale Of Two Cities

November 06, 2009|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Justin.fenton@baltsun.com

LONDON

After an overnight flight, I woke up to the sound of police sirens and a pop-pop-popping outside the Kentish Town apartment where I'm staying. Gunfire? Nope. It was Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, marking the downfall of a plot to destroy the Houses of Parliament in 1605. The fireworks celebrations will last all weekend.

I haven't hit the streets, but in chatting with reporters at The Independent, I'm already hearing about some pretty significant differences in how crime is covered.

In Baltimore, and the U.S. generally, an arrest in a criminal case marks a big moment in the reporting process. Authorities have to file charging documents with the court, laying out certain evidence. With the suspect formally identified and charged, the digging then begins on trying to find out more about the case and the suspect.

Here, it is the opposite. Once an arrest is made, there is essentially a blackout on information. Reporters are prohibited by the government from publishing information about the case, particularly anything about the defendant, out of concern that potential jurors would be influenced. Violators of that policy run the risk of fines and contempt-of-court charges. If a reporter gets major information on a case, but an arrest is made while he is preparing the article, he will have to sit on the information.

In the U.S., our courts will call hundreds of people if necessary to find 12 who have not heard about the case, and the jurors are instructed by the judge not to seek out information in newspapers or on TV during the proceedings. Reporters here couldn't believe what I was telling them about our access to court records and our ability to write about a case after arrest, and leading up to and during a trial. Another big difference is that police scanners, a fixture in U.S. newsrooms, aren't a factor here. They wait to hear from police about major crimes, and alerts can sometimes take days, reporters said. And because of the contempt and jury-bias issues, if they find out about a crime after an arrest is made, they're essentially powerless to do any meaningful reporting.

Mark Hughes, a crime reporter with The Independent, a national newspaper in the United Kingdom, is visiting Baltimore to see if the city's police officers, drug dealers, prosecutors and politicians bear any resemblance to those on "The Wire," which recently aired in Great Britain. The Baltimore Sun has dispatched his counterpart, Justin Fenton, to London to compare crime trends. More observations from Hughes and Fenton are at baltimoresun.com/twocities.

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