On 23 July 2011 a nurse, Rebecca Leighton, was charged with with six counts of causing damage with intent to endanger life at Stepping Hill Hospital where she was an acting ward sister. Five patients had died at the hospital, apparently as the result of the contamination of saline bags.
The evidence against Ms Leighton was extraordinarily weak. Her fingerprints were on a saline bag which had been damaged by a needle. It was thought that the needle had been drawn from a bottle of antibiotic fluid contaminated with insulin which was on the hospital premises. It was, however, clear that many people had access to the saline bags and the fluid.
There were other fingerprints on the bags and Ms Leighton had every reason to be touching both items in her role as sister. On 2 September 2011 the charges against Ms Leighton were dropped. She, understandably, has described her experience as a “living nightmare“.
The release of Ms Leighton focuses attention on the press reporting of her arrest and charge. The principle that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty remains unknown to the British tabloid press. A number of bloggers have dealt with the press reporting in this case (in particular, the Politicised Correctly, Angry Mob and Fleet Street Blues blogs) but the background bears repeating.
In a pattern of behaviour which has become all too familiar the tabloid press treated these charges as licence to crawl all over Ms Leighton’s life, republish her Facebook photographs and generally undermine her character. The “Daily Star” named her the “Angel of Death” – and the other press followed. The “Daily Star” used pictures from Ms Leighton’s Facebook page telling readers:
Yesterday new photos emerged of fun-loving Rebecca at a party for fellow nurses. At a separate cowboys and Indians-themed New Year bash she posed with a toy gun in her mouth.
As the Politicised Correctly blog says, the fact that a young woman goes to parties, drinks and has fun must mean “She’s obviously the killer“. It goes on to point out that the “Daily Star” published a picture of the shop above which Ms Leighton and her fiancée live despite the fact that, as its sister paper the Daily Express reported
“she was remanded in custody for her own safety amid fears that she could become the target of vigilante attacks“.
The “Daily Star” left its readers in no doubt about guilt with its 23 July 2011 headline about the nurse who sounded the alarm: “A HERO nurse Nabs the ‘Angel of Death’” .
The “Daily Mirror” described Ms Leighton as the “‘Saline serial killer‘”. It goes on to quote her Facebook page
“Leighton says she is engaged and adds: “I’m a happy go lucky kinda gal, loves the wkend (if im not workin) and having a laugh with the people that i call friends for a reason x” A recent post on her page said: “What an exciting life I lead!”. She also wrote: “F*** it, life is too short”. And in February she said: “I may be bad but im perfectly gud at it”.”
But, as Politicised Correctly points out, the “Daily Mail” takes first place in the prejudicial coverage stakes on this story. It had a large picture of Ms Leighton with headline “Did this Nurse Murder Three Patients?” According to the headline she “had ‘frantic’ social life to cope with work stress“. The Mail article of 21 July 2011 is illustrated by numerous pictures of her apparently taken from Facebook (presumably in breach of her copyright) and another picture of her flat. A few weeks later it told its readers that her boyfriend was “quizzed about child porn” – although there seems to be no factual basis for this particular story.
After Ms Leighton’s release the press has reported her statement that she has been through a “living hell” – without mentioning their own role in the story. Much of the press chose to concentrate on the Greater Manchester Police’s self justificatory press release – saying that they still had 500 people to interview. We have not noticed any apologies for the previous coverage or the intrusion into her life.
The Politicised Correctly blog draws attention to the fact that the Facebook account from which the pictures and quotations were taken was “locked” so its contents must either have been disclosed by one of Ms Leighton’s Facebook friends or unauthorised access must have been obtained.
The mistreatment of yet another innocent person by the press gives rise to questions as to whether there should be clearer restrictions on the ability of the press to report on criminal investigations and charges. It is not just a matter of prejudicing of criminal trials but also the gross invasion of the rights of suspects. Perhaps consideration should be given to a rule that the default position should be anonymity for suspects – as in many European countries. A rule that suspects could only be named before the trial if this was necessary to assist the criminal investigation would remove copy from the tabloids but would avoid the further “monstering” of the innocent.