The ghost of Christmas future

SALLY Rose White is the ghost of Christmas past. She haunts me, and others should feel the same; more so. Fifteen years ago, at Christmas time, the killer who ended her wretched life was finally arrested, but only after he had spent this festive time of year killing two more women and dismembering their bodies. I know this is a grisly recollection for Christmas Eve and this isn’t It’s A Wonderful Life, but there is a reason for thinking of the anniversary and it comes with a warning of where we might end up in the coming years. I’ll try to explain.

Back to Christmas 2002: we were supposed to be celebrating but Camden Town was taken over by police following the discovery of body parts in bin bags dumped close to the College Place estate. Anthony Hardy, the Camden Ripper, as he was instantly named and which he probably enjoyed, went on the run. His victims that Christmas, Elizabeth Valad and Bridgette Maclennan, had been sex workers, lured to his flat, where they were killed and, after death, photographed in demonic masks. There is some suggestion he spent Christmas Day itself sawing up one of their bodies. Their heads and hands were never found. You could go on, but each detail is more harrowing than the last.

I went on to write thousands and thousands of words about Hardy and what he had done and how several authorities appeared to have missed opportunities to stop him. It is one of the defining stories of my work at CNJ after all these years, so it’s ironic that it started with a screw-up.

The key to the scandal around these murders is the fact that twelve months before Liz and Bridgette died, Sally was killed in a similar way. Not only that, her body had been found in a locked room in Hardy’s flat on the Hartland block of the estate. She had bite marks and a blow to the head. A bucket of warm water by the bed compromised Hardy’s claim that he had not been in the room – supposedly being used by a non-existent lodger. He was held on a charge of criminal damage to a neighbour’s home – the reason officers came to his door – but not charged with Sally’s murder. A pathologist, Dr Freddy Patel, reported she had died from natural causes and as a result police, despite knowing the full peculiar details of how she was found, said they had little choice but to drop the case.

A coroner said the same and the case was closed. Hardy had exchanges and stays with mental health services after that, but was freed to return to his flat. When Christmas came, he killed again. The failures of all of these authorities – to which you could also add the council, who had struggled to flag up Hardy’s concerning behaviour despite warnings from neighbours – were never reviewed by the public inquiry sought by Liz’s relatives on behalf of her daughter, Soraya.

They should have been, because a lot of people passed the buck after Sally was found dead in Hardy’s flat. Nobody said: This is all a little odd, are we just going to move onto something else because of one pathologist’s report? They did move on, and, a decade and a half ago this week, found themselves back at the estate plumbing Hardy’s drains for clues at Christmas.

Now many of you may have read the suggestion in the wake of the Grenfell fire disaster this year that the concerns of residents there would have gained more power with a more effective local newspaper on the scene. People living in the tower blogged about their worries, even predicted a tragedy, but nobody, apart from one reporter, Camilla Horrox, seemed to be interested. She wrote about the tower but then she was made redundant when the Kensington and Chelsea Chronicle closed and news for the area switched to a quick and ready online operation, where it’s been suggested quantity and the race to be fastest on Google replaced quality.

I don’t know if more journalists on the ground would have helped prevent Grenfell. It’s a reasonable argument to make for people concerned by how newsroom cutbacks are damaging local news and accountability. It is also possible that the leaders in Kensington would still have done nothing about safety concerns at Grenfell, and dismissed it all as the local rag stirring things up; we all know a couple of councillors who rush to that argument if criticism of their decisions ever appear in print.

But the louder the drum beats, the greater the chance that authorities will at least pause and think. In our area, we’ve seen the demands for answers in the local press provide a stiff test for publicly accountable institutions: the Whittington abandoned plans to shut down its Accident and Emergency department, for example, and Camden Council and its contractors could no longer delay giving school dinner staff the London Living Wage once it was a front page focus each week.

It’s with all this in mind, the things that have been said about the local press’s withdrawal from Grenfell, that I think of Sally, and the ten, or 15 minute inquest in which a pathologist and a coroner agreed that she had died from natural causes. Witnesses were not called to give evidence. Hardy was not called to court. The strange circumstances were read to the court and that was it. Nobody was there to speak up for Sally, a disabled woman working as as sex worker who had fallen out with her family long ago and moved from the south coast to London.

This was the moment for the Camden New Journal, or anybody else, to say in big print how odd the case was and that the authorities should look again at the circumstances of her death. The inquest instead was a column tucked away at the back of the paper. Why? The sorry answer is that I’d only been a journalist for three months, and was a stumbling rookie who was just happy to get something in the paper as a way to justify my existence in an office in which all the other reporters made it look easy. The editors did not know the full disturbing details of the case because I was scratching a story together from my notepad and placing too much trust in the authority, the worst starting point for any journalist. Back then (and maybe still now) deaths of drug addicts and sex workers in Camden seemed to be skated over with short, lonely inquests, appropriate for a courthouse which features in Dickens.

At that time, every uni leaver or press trainee wanted to work at the CNJ or a paper with a similar reputation because in 2002 it was still, just about, the natural first step in journalism. These days, reporters come out of expensive courses and can end up straight on a national newspaper, not always as correspondents but in their online news departments, rarely leaving the office to investigate a story – as we all dreamed about doing at journo school. Instead, the job is often about renosing wire copy and then tweeting the life out of it. I’ve done shift work like that, and will do again, and you can’t blame them for taking this career path as throughout their costly studies they’ve been told, rightly or wrongly, that local papers have no future. But it still leaves less people challenging power.

At the time of the inquest, I was green as could be – I hadn’t been to the ancient surrounds of a coroner’s court before I joined the CNJ – and I filed a story which hardly questioned what had happened to Sally or how cursory the inquest had been. If I was coming away from the courtroom now, I’d be rushing back to the newsroom and pressing for it to be our page one lead. Before I’d got back to my desk, I’d have questions into all the authorities who had ruled this hugely suspicious death could only be natural causes.

What would have ended up in print? Maybe we would have been concerned about the legal aspect of suggesting a man had been more involved than a court of law had ruled. Hardy at that time could have sued us, I guess, if we intimated he was a killer when his conviction had been for pouring battery acid through a neighbour’s door. But me now (or me any time after six months at the paper) would have done things differently than the report of the inquest I put together, and it would have been more probing. That’s not hindsight based on what Hardy went on to do, it’s just doing the job as it is meant – and needs – to be done.

Again, jumping up and down and screaming about the case might not have changed anything, but a front page headline in a paper, which still holds its circulation up, can pack a punch and can get people to reflect. Maybe some detective or someone in the mental health units, or someone somewhere, may have reacted to a more prominent story by thinking the case needed to be looked at again. Who knows?

It is a case that I reflect on a lot, which is maybe why I went onto to try and write everything else I could about the case in the coming years, as if it could somehow put the reporting of the inquest right. The tale of how that brief inquest into Sally’s death, however, should be a warning to the way newspapers are increasingly being staffed now. The value of experience seems to have a  low stock among newspaper groups right now.

Across the country, experienced editors are being paid off and replaced with younger, cheaper alternatives. The same goes with correspondents. Even in a low-paid profession like local journalism, having a wage above £20,000 seems to make you vulnerable to being eased out. There is almost an attitude of knowing that somebody with a few years of experience will do a more thorough job, but if readers apparently only want the first 140 characters of a story or a pithy Facebook update (not a view I subscribe too, btw) then why not get it done by a trainee. No point gilding the lily. It’s cheaper to hire cubs. At which point, it’s worth remembering that many local newspaper groups are still making millions of pounds every year and the jobs and salaries of top group execs and board members are essentially protected.

All this is not to say that trainee reporters are not important to whole journalism ecosystem, the passing of the baton is important for any paper. New reporters bring new ideas and can learn very quickly on he job. Some are instant scoop getters and are ready to do the job almost as soon as they walk through the door. I’m proud too that the CNJ has been a lab for reporters who have gone on to do great things in journalism too, it gave them/us a first chance. But no paper can be run on trainees alone, or reporters who were as green as I was in 2002.

If there is nobody to shout, or knows how to shout, for people like Sally Rose White, then she will be the ghost of Christmas future too.

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