Ronnie Biggs, who turns 80 later this year, is currently being recommended for release from prison. Infamous for his role in the Great Train Robbery of 1963, he escaped prison after only 15 months of his 30 year sentence to Brazil where he gained celebrity status for his bold taunting of the British justice system, including recording a single with the Sex Pistols. He returned to Britain in 2001 where he was subsequently re-arrested and sent back to prison.
Today’s papers presented the same story, told in a different manner, sometimes subtly, sometimes not so.
The Times offers a sympathetic view to Biggs, even allowing the story space within their Editorial comment. It calls for “Mercy” and “Clemency” and twice asserts that the decision to exercise such acts of kindness lie with Jack Straw.
In its article by Richard Ford and Adam Fresco, a hugely sympathetic view is taken, with the onus on justice secretary Straw to cede to compassion. We are told that he hopes to move to a nursing home near his son, that he has suffered strokes which have left him unable to speak, and furthermore he is reduced to pointing and spelling out words with letters of the alphabet. His physical condition is described in that he is fed through a tube and can only walk a few steps unaided. After this factual information presented in a manner to create an image of a helpless creature, we are told that the parole board is expected to release him in time for his 80th birthday. So not only does the innocent reader feel sorry for the physical state of this man, but we are also invited to show sentimentality and a display a sense of occasion.
After such a picture is painted, the scene is set for Ford and Fresco to inform us “The final decision on whether Biggs will spend his last years in freedom rests with Jack Straw”. Look at the language. It places huge pressure on Straw to be populist, and invites the reader to condemn the Justice Secretary should he deny this frail creature his “last years in freedom”.
As a Times devotee, I’m somewhat dismayed by the lack of objective reporting which is contrasted with the Independent’s story (objective mainly due to length) and the BBC’s dull version of events (objective because it prides itself in such).
Meanwhile The Sun seems to tilt to the other side of the argument. In a much shorter article than in The Times, it uses language such as “villain father” and reminds us that Biggs has served [only] “a third of his sentence”. The information on his condition is presented matter-of-factly, not inviting “mercy” or “clemency”
The Daily Mail predictably goes even further, offering two full pages on Biggs (p.10-11), considerably more than the other papers. Twice we are told in Stephen Wright’s (Crime Editor) article that the care received by Biggs if released would be “provided at the taxpayers expense” as well as the question being asked of which authority will have to “pick up the bill for caring for Biggs”. Here we are not presented with a frail old man, but rather an undeserving drain on the public purse.
The opinion piece which goes alongside the article by Geoffrey Wansell is unsubtly titled “He put two fingers up to justice for 36 years. So should he just be freed because he’s a sad, broken old man?” Wansell presents the previously unmentioned view that “There are those who are convinced that Biggs has failed to ‘serve his debt to society’ – not least because he has never demonstrated the slightest remorse for his crime.” Wansell refers to Biggs’ “unrepentant delight” and the paradox of his “fame as a fugitive”. He refers to Biggs as “cocky”, “a convicted criminal”, “a ruthless chancer” and tells us how much he earned from the Robbery – £146,000.
While The Times refers to “Mercy”, Wansell refers to “Compassion” but uses it in such a way as to question whether we should have any compassion on “a conman with little or no compassion for anyone but himself.”
Facts are facts. Yet which facts are chosen and how they are presented affect a story hugely. The Daily Mail emphasises that the Taxpayer will have to foot the bill for Biggs’ healthcare, not mentioning that of course the Taxpayer is already paying for his imprisonment. It glosses over Biggs’ physical condition, mentioning it briefly three quarters way down the article when many readers have stopped reading or skipped straight to the end. Conversely, The Times places great emphasis on the frail condition of Biggs mentioning it near the beginning of the article, and in great detail.
Compare too that The Times tells us that Biggs married in 2002, while Wansell in The Mail informs us that “He abandoned his wife and three sons in Australia when he was close to being captured by the British police in 1969”. Both facts. Both true. Yet both inviting incredibly different conclusions to be drawn.
We are slaves to the information the media decides to inform us of, yet as clever consumers we can read a variety of sources, and question the language being used, the positioning of information and the conclusions that the writer is urging us to draw.