Newspapers have a responsibility to treat people fairly, especially in the current climate when innocent men and women are routinely picked up by police in the full glare of television cameras and then quietly let off when nobody is looking.
ON MAY 9, anyone who cared to switch on their TV or pick up a newspaper could not have escaped the headlines about the arrests of three members of a British Indian family in connection with the London bombings of July 7, 2005. They were arrested after a series of dramatic anti-terror raids in the predominantly Asian areas of Birmingham and West Yorkshire, handcuffed, brought to London and locked up on suspicion of "commissioning, preparing or instigating acts of terrorism."
It was a big media story. And for good reasons even though some of the reportage, especially the repeated TV replays of the 7/7 footage and the slightly hysterical tone of on-camera pieces, seemed designed to heighten the drama. What made it big was the fact that among those arrested was Hasina Patel, the 29-year-old wife of Mohammed Siddique Khan, the alleged mastermind behind the London bombings. Others included her brother Arshad Patel (30) and cousin Imran Motala (22), a university student.
A week later, all three were freed without any charge (a fourth man, arrested the same day, continues to be in police custody) but, in glaring contrast to the coverage given to their arrests, their release went almost unnoticed. It got a passing mention in TV news bulletins, and was dismissed as a "brief" by national newspapers.
Admittedly, the story of their release was not as "sexy" as that of their arrests and nobody expected it to hit the front page, but wasn't it even worth recording properly? Here were three innocent persons who had spent a week in police detention their reputation shattered and lives turned upside down but, let alone police offering any apology (they maintained that in "large and complex investigations" it was "not unusual" for people to be detained for interrogation and then let off without being charged) even the media didn't show them the courtesy of highlighting their innocence. On the other hand, if they had been charged and sent for trial or later convicted that would have, inevitably, generated screaming headlines.
So, does their innocence count for nothing? Surely, the newspapers owed it to their readers to inform them of the latest twist in what has been one of the most heavily reported cases. Given the sparse coverage their release got, I doubt if, barring the Patel family, their neighbours, and those who are paid to keep an eye on news, many Britons would be aware that they have been freed. There is a pattern of underplaying such stories not because of any deliberate media bias but because they don't fit the classical definition of news that news is only when "man bites dog." After all, "Suspect released" doesn't have the same "newsy" ring as "Widow of 7/7 ring-leader held in pre-dawn swoop." But when dealing with people's lives and their reputations must it all be about how it would look on the page? There is an issue of media ethics here and no amount of hair-splitting about the hurly-burly nature of daily journalism can absolve newspapers of their responsibility to treat people fairly, especially in the current climate when, thanks to the laissez-faire "war on terrorism," innocent men and women are routinely picked up by police in the full glare of television cameras and then quietly let off when nobody is noticing.
The manner of Ms. Patel's arrest two years after the event has also raised eyebrows. Civil liberties' groups, who have been following her case, say they are puzzled by police action as Ms. Patel had been cooperating fully with the investigations and no new evidence was produced to justify her arrest.
"Hasina and her family have cooperated with the police, intelligence services, with the coroner, they have been in regular contact with everyone," protested Suresh Grover, a rights campaigner, arguing that there was "absolutely no reason for these dramatic arrests to take place in this fashion."
Ms. Patel's lawyer, Imran Khan, was livid. "To arrest her in these circumstances a woman who lost her husband, who has been accused of the most atrocious events that have taken place in this country, has now spent seven days in isolation in Paddington Green [police station] I wonder what she must be feeling," he said.
It had also damaged police relations with the Muslim community at a time when they needed its support to fight extremism. "If their intention in this case was to destroy what relations they had with the Muslim community, then they have done that..." he told the BBC.
Meanwhile, Imran Motala has described his nightmarish experience from the moment he was arrested at a University Birmingham hall of residence, and driven to a London police station where he was repeatedly accused of being involved in the 7/7 bombings. "They didn't just think I had withheld information about the bombings, they thought I was involved, that I was to have been the fifth bomber [who changed his mind at the last minute]. They asked me: `are you the fifth bomber? Were you meant to be the fifth bomber? Did you bottle out in the end?'" he told The Guardian.
Mr. Motala was kept under surveillance for a year before being arrested and yet police could not produce any evidence to bring charges against him and had to release him after a week of intensive and intimidating interrogation. He said his only "crime" was that Mohammed Siddique Khan married into his family. And Ms. Patel's "sin," of course, was to have been Mrs. Khan, even though an estranged one. Two plus two make... ? Ask Scotland Yard.