18 MAY 1962, Page 7

Press and People

Confessions Exclusive


OMMEN11NG on At Your Peril the other day k..,/ I suggested that the Mirror group could not disclaim all responsibility for the public suspicion and mistrust of the press which court verdicts nowadays tend to reflect; and there is a good example of their culpability in an article on Donald Hume in this month's Encounter, by Giles Playfair and Derrick Sington.

Hume was accused in 1950 of murdering Stanley Setty, dismembering his body, wrapping up the pieces and dropping them into the sea from an aeroplane. He pleaded guilty to dis- posing of the remains, but not guilty to the murder; and he was eventually sentenced only as an accessory after the fact. Three months after his release 'he was handsomely rewarded by the Sunday Pictorial for a blood-curdling "confession" to the Setty murder itself.'

But, as the writers of the article are easily able to show, Hume did not kill Setty. Hume was 'an abnormal man who came out of prison so unhinged that he was capable of publishing to the world a confession of murder which cannot possibly have been true.' The point which they are concerned to make is that society ought to find better means of dealing with psychopaths than putting them in gaol for fixed terms and then releasing them, without bothering about either their future or the public's protection. Agreed; but while society lags in this respect it is all the more important that newspapers which claim to have a 'social conscience, and fre- quently flaunt it, should be scrupulous in their dealings with criminals—particularly if there is any history of mental instability, as in Hume's case; he had been diagnosed as severely psycho- pathic as far back as 1941.

If there is any single distinguishing feature of the psychopath, it is that he is a liar; some- times good, sometimes lunatic, but easily detect- able with the help of a little research. The Sunday Pictorial needed only to compare the `confession' by Hume with the facts given in court to realise that it was sheer invention. Yet they printed Hume's words as the truth, and other newspapers accepted them as such, for their own purposes. The Express, for example, published Hume's story that he had once talked with Timothy Evans in a remand prison, and that Evans had then admitted helping Christie to murder his child. Predictably a leading ar- ticle commented that this dealt a heavy blow to the abolitionist cause.

The moral, for psychopaths, is obvious: if you can invent a crime story grisly enough, there is no need actually to have participated in the crime, or to have overheard other criminals discussing it. Some newspaper will buy your lies, after an auction has pushed up the price to agreeable dimensions—the Pictorial Paid £2,000 for Hume's confession (the amount he got from the Express is not recorded). And what better encouragement could there be to Psychopaths, newly out of gaol, to return to Crime? They have short-term minds, rarely thinking ahead to the inevitable eventual con- sequences, a long prison sentence. They think in terms of immediate gain and—very often— immediate notoriety. Nothing pleases them more than to see their exploits continuing to fill the front pages of the newspapers, as Hume was able to do when he embarked on his career as a bank robber.

It is not easy to see how the Pictorial could have been restrained from publishing the 'con- fession'--or from resuming the series, in the unlikely event of Hume being released. One sug- gestion put forward recently was that such articles could be taxed, the proceeds going to a fund for compensating the victims of crimes of violence; perhaps the Pictorial, in reparation, might agitate for such a fund, and contribute to it. But so long as the Press Council remains impotent, the only remedy lies in the develop- ment of a greater sense of responsibility among the owners of newspaper groups. They would not allow the ravings of a man who had gone mad to be published as a 'confession': why should they permit the inventions of a psycho- path, by definition a congenital liar, to be pub- lished as such? Particularly when, as in Hume's case, the lies enabled him to revenge himself on his unfortunate wife—who had stood by him throughout his trial, and for some time after- wards until his behaviour grew impossible—by unworthy smears.