Reporting of the horrific case of Hamzah Khan’s neglect and starvation in Bradford was awful according to Amanda Hutton’s barrister.
At the end of the trial he told the jury that as a result of the media coverage the man in the street “would say ‘from all we’ve read, we think it’s terrible, she’s guilty, no penalty would be enough for her’.”
In my submission M’Lud, that’s a bit rich. As seen from the press benches of Bradford’s Court 3 this was a nightmare of a trial. There were passionate discussions among reporters inside and outside the courtroom about every aspect of the case – from the significance of the evidence, to the direction it was taking, and not least the reporting restrictions. Overall it was a triumph for sensible, accurate media reporting.
From the outset we were banned from revealing significant parts of the evidence. We and the jury knew from day one that Hutton had five other young children who were found in squalor when Hamzah’s mummified body was discovered in his mother’s Bradford bedroom in September 2011. But we were banned from reporting it by the court – no mention of any other child was allowed to be published. We also knew Hutton and her eldest son (an adult) had pleaded guilty to neglecting Hamzah’s five siblings, but the jury had not been told, so we couldn’t report that for two reasons: The jury didn’t know and we couldn’t say anything that suggested the existence of other children.
Then it started getting complicated. Much of the evidence referred to the other children, or to hints of their existence, for examples nappies being thrown into a neighbour’s garden and her claims that she feared losing her other children if she reported Hamzah’s weight loss. Try live tweeting evidence and changing it to remove any banned references, on pain of being hauled into the dock and landed with a fine if you get it wrong. In this case even more than others, rival journalists from press agencies, local & national papers, TV and radio worked together to share legal advice, experience and common sense to fathom out what we could and couldn’t say.
Two weeks into the trial it all changed again: the jury was told Hutton and Khan had pleaded guilty to neglecting the five children, but we could say nothing. Once the jury had gone for lunch and thanks to approachable and pragmatic counsel we jointly came up with a phrase that was neither contempt, nor untrue: “Guilty of child neglect”. No mention of the five counts (not alllowed) or of Hamzah (not true). But we still couldn’t report it because there was a court order in place. The judge was telephoned by the clerk, the order was verbally lifted and with a sigh all carried on.
By now some of us felt so hidebound by the inability to mention the other children we were informing readers and viewers that the reporting restrictions were preventing us from telling the full story. It was only after the jury retired that a challenge from media lawyers led to an agreement by the court that the other children could be mentioned. The judge had already suggested it would take the jury less than a day to reach a verdict. With everyone’s background stories written and filed ready for publication, cue media meltdown, re-writes and re-edits.
At the end of it all the media, in the way it covered the case, showed itself not only to be alive and well in these straitened, post-Leveson days, but to be as passionate, determined, responsible, collaborative and competitive as ever. This was a dreadful, sad, and sobering case. It was the story that was awful, not the media coverage.