A Note on the Daily Mail, Colin Stagg, Operation Midland and the Metropolitan Police

From the Daily Mail, a week ago:

Colin Stagg is now 57, greying and portlier than when he hit the headlines in the early 1990s, but there is no mistaking his features as he heads to his local Tesco Express for his checkout shift.

He was the innocent loner targeted in a police honey trap involving a blonde undercover officer whose mission was to get him to ‘confess’ to a murder he did not commit.

Mr Stagg never admitted killing Rachel Nickell, 23 – stabbed 49 times in front of her young son Alex on Wimbledon Common in July 1992 – and there was no worthwhile evidence against him, but police still charged him with her murder.

…For now, friends say he is simply getting on with his life after being the victim of one of Scotland Yard’s most disgraceful investigations in which – as in the more recent shambolic VIP child abuse inquiry Operation Midland – the presumption of innocence was not adhered to by police.

Stagg’s current circumstances are deemed newsworthy due to an upcoming Channel 4 drama about the case. The reference to Operation Midland, though, links the the story to the paper’s ongoing series of articles about fall-out from the Carl Beech fiasco.

In recent weeks the paper has returned to claims that Operation Midland search warrants were obtained unlawfully by the Met by misleading a judge, and it has highlighted that two unnamed false accusers who hitched their wagon to Beech’s star at a time when the Met had declared his allegations to be “credible and true” have not faced any action against them (an outcome that is currently being investigated by Merseyside Police). There has also been a piece on “bombshell emails” detailing how Cressida Dick, who currently heads the Met (although that may change very soon after last night’s incident on Clapham Common), “was shielded by her colleagues”, and an article denouncing the appointment of former Met chief Bernard Hogan-Howe (now Lord Hogan-Howe) “to carry out an external review of a major police database blunder.”

However, the description of what happened to Colin Stagg as being “of one of Scotland Yard’s most disgraceful investigations” comes over as somewhat unreflective given how tabloids including the Mail persecuted him after his trial collapsed in 1994 – an outcome that was less than an exoneration until the actual killer was identified several years later. Here’s Nick Cohen, writing in the Observer in 2006:

The worst of it was that the police and media persuaded the family of Rachel Nickell that the crucial difference between Stagg and [Myra] Hindley was that Stagg had got away with murder. The News of the World ran lipsmacking pieces on how the ‘weirdo’ demanded ‘bizarre sex’ with his ‘terrified’ girlfriend yards from where Rachel Nickell was murdered. The Daily Mail quoted Andre Hanscombe, father of her son, saying he was ’99 per cent certain’ that Stagg was guilty and the government should remove the double jeopardy law so he could be tried again. It also ran a serialisation of a self-justificatory book by the officer in charge of the case, Detective Inspector Keith Pedder, headlined ‘How British Justice Betrayed Rachel’s Son’.

All the harassment and the tub-thumping, the misleading of Rachel Nickell’s family and the denigration by the judge was in vain; a vast exercise in distraction left the real killer free to commit other crimes.

Cohen’s article is headlined “With police and tabloids in cahoots, Colin Stagg became a sacrificial lamb”. That cosiness apparently came to an end when the Metropolitan Police began investigating tabloid phone-hacking; thus the Mail‘s right-wing polemicist Richard Littlejohn, reacting to the paper’s recent articles on Operation Midland, last month linked the case to “the Gestapo tactics the Old Bill used against journalists accused of phone-hacking and paying public servants for information” (1).

I wrote more about the investigation into Stagg here.


1. Journalistic hostility to the Met, though, did not inhibit the paper’s hatchet-man Guy Adams from in 2019 referring online to former Chief Constable of Wiltshire Police Mike Veale as “carrot-cruncher”, shortly after an ITV dramatization of the Levi Bellfield case revealed that “carrot” is an derisive nickname used within the Metropolitan Police to refer to officers from other forces.

Mail Online Amplifies Abusive Tweet

When is a “vile troll” not a “vile troll”? The Daily Mail website (which also incorporates the Mail on Sunday and Mail Online) yields around 2,000 Google search results for the phrase (singular and plural); there are also many more related stories on the site that don’t use the exact expression. Examples of trolling deemed worthy of condemnatory news coverage range from taunting messages that wish individuals harm or express glee over some personal tragedy, through to more mundane kinds of hurtful abuse.

Yet “vile trolls” have their uses, one of which is to editorialise by proxy. In such cases, trolls are actually the authentic pox populi, merely expressing strong opinions about members of elite who need to be taken down a peg or two. A recent example of this appears in a MailOnline piece, under the headline

British viewers call on Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to lose Duke and Duchess rank for being ‘disrespectful’ to the Queen during bombshell Oprah interview – but Americans praise couple’s ‘honesty and bravery’

The article takes the form of a social media round-up, and is heavy with screenshots. Like all such articles, the material chosen for display is selective, and this exhibit in particular from Twitter caught my eye:

What a bitch. Hope her and Harry lose their Duke and Duchess titles. She’s got no class and doesn’t deserve to be associated with our Royal family. Meghan’s half sister was right in her pre-wedding interviews.

The word “bitch” is blanked out by the Mail, but the reading is obvious. Despite this, though, the designation “troll” does not appear anywhere – he’s apparently just a “British viewer”.

Why amplify such an individual? The account concerned is anonymous; it has 500 followers, and most of its previous Tweets and RTs consist of lewd comments about female celebrities (including one about the Duchess of Cambridge). It cannot seriously be claimed that such a gratuitous comment needed to be included for reasons of even-handedness.

The Oprah interview included a voiceover segment where Winfrey referred to “constant criticism, blatant sexist and racist remarks by British tabloids and internet trolls”; presumably this is what prompted Ian Murray of the Society of Editors to complain that

It is… unreasonable for the Duke and Duchess to conflate the legitimate coverage provided by the edited and regulated UK media with the wild west of social media.

Yet the “edited and regulated UK media” appears to be very comfortable using “wild west of social media” as a polemical resource.