After years of rough justice, a tireless champion steps down
“There is always a possibility that amongst the shoal of grey fish there is one gold fish,” David Jessel says.
It’s a theme the investigative journalist who has spent the past 25 years pursuing miscarriages of justice approaches from a number of directions during our conversation.
Jessel, 65, is a tireless champion of the wrongfully convicted: 15 years with the BBC when he joined the Rough Justice team in 1985; then with Channel 4 through the 1990s with Trial and Error; and latterly with the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC), which he joined ten years ago.
The commission is the independent watchdog set up after a series of judicial miscarriages — the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four — that shook public faith in the criminal justice system.
Jessel stepped down this month from the organisation that he and others campaigned to set up. He will be missed: a campaigning journalist in the company of lawyers and academics or, as an insider puts it, the CCRC’s conscience.
Campbell Malone, the veteran miscarriage lawyer, reckons that Jessel’s departure “at this difficult time will leave a big gap that the commission will find hard to fill.
He brought credibility to them as well as reassurance to applicants and their lawyers.” Malone adds: “His passion for justice and communication skills made him not only a key member but a very effective advocate.”
About 1,000 people apply to the commission every year (mostly prisoners) to have their convictions overturned — and 97 per cent of those are rejected.
For a case to be referred back to the Court of Appeal, an applicant needs the backing of three of eight commissioners. “I want every case that comes in to be a miscarriage of justice,” Jessel says. “Naive I know, but you have to have that mindset.”
When Jessel joined the watchdog, colleagues thought he was selling out.
He likened the move to being “nationalised”. He is the first to acknowledge that the media’s love affair with miscarriages is well and truly over.
The BBC confirmed that it would end Rough Justice after 25 years in 2007 and Michael Jackson, as Channel 4’s chief executive, described Trial and Error as a “bit 1980s”. So joining the commission was a smart career move.
“A lot of case review managers very sweetly tell me, ‘We used to see your stuff on telly, Dad, and that got us interested.’ ”
The watchdog has not had an easy ride. In an extraordinary sign-off, the immediate past chairman, Professor Graham Zellick, described staff as “angry and dispirited”.
The watchdog’s funding has been slashed by £100,000 a year for the past five years, falling to a meagre £6.5 million. “The last few years have been exhausting,” Jessel says. Everyone whinges about cuts, he explains, but they disproportionately affect “a cheap organisation doing a terribly important job”.
The journalist is keen to pay tribute to his former colleagues, particularly the case review managers who do the digging.
But he despairs that money is so tight that the Birmingham-based staff are not encouraged to visit the Court of Appeal, which, he argues, is essential if they are to understand that “judges are just people. They know a rum case when they see one. If you put a plate of stinking fish in front of the Court of Appeal it pretty soon realises that it’s a plate of stinking fish.”
Campaigners (including Malone) have been critical of the “inbuilt conservatism” of a body that has a 70 per cent success rate for convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal.
A recent book (The Criminal Cases Review Commission: Hope For the Innocent) had as its central contention that the CCRC was simply not up to the job.
Jessel’s eyes roll to the heavens at the mention of the debate. “It’s academic fairyland to say we’re not interested in justice,” he says. Unsurprisingly, the biggest threat to the CCRC comes from a coalition government looking for cuts. Should we expect it to be flung atop the Tories’ promised bonfire of the quangos?
Jessel thinks not. He has “more hope in Ken Clarke than I ever did in Charles Clarke”. A former commissioner, Laurie Elks, described the commission as being regulated “from a spirit of underlying hostility” by New Labour.
Clearly, its role did not fit well with the intention to “rebalance” the justice system away from the accused towards the victim. Jessel believes that the watchdog will survive the cuts because it works. “What you get for your money is not only the 4 per cent referrals but a quality assessment on the 96 per cent of others thrown in free,” he says.
It is hard to imagine Jessel stopping investigative work — he says he “can’t give it up”. He talks passionately about those unresolved cases that trouble him, such as Brian Parsons (convicted of the murder of Ivy Batten in Devon) and Eddie Gilfoyle (convicted for killing his wife in The Wirral).
He describes the commission’s final and successful reference to the appeal judges — after six visits to the court — the case of David Cooper and Michael McMahon as “my happiest moment”.
In 2003, they were cleared posthumously of the murder of a Luton sub-postmaster in 1969. “You know, they all come good in the end,” he insists.
Do you mean that? “Oh, yes.”