Privacy Commission Day 6, Witness 1: Avril Sanders Royle

The PM Privacy Commission spoke to Avril Sanders Royle on Thursday June 30, 2011. The commissioners are Sir Michael Lyons, Lord Faulks QC and Baroness Liddell.

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NB: This transcript was typed from an audio recording. The views expressed by the witness are their own.

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ML: Good day and welcome back to the BBC PM Privacy Commission. One of the issues which have emerged over our discussion so far is whether concern about privacy and the role of the courts and others extends to ordinary people or is just a debate about the interests of the rich and powerful. Today we're joined by an example of someone whose family life has been turned upside down by events and who has testimony to share with us about the problems of protecting privacy in those circumstances. That's Avril Sanders Royle whose stepson Julian was murdered in May 2000 just shortly before his 21st birthday. Avril thank you very much for joining us - perhaps I should give you a chance to just say a bit about the experiences you had at that time.

ASR: The experiences we had changed our lives. What happened was that Julian had been missing for a week before we got a knock on the door and it had been all over the papers before that so I knew about the case and when it happened we had to make sure the other family members knew. We had one person, one close family member over on holiday in Germany. The next day after the news was broken to us my husband went to the coroner's office in Birmingham to identify Julian and it was on the way back on that journey that we realised that the local media had already started announcing the identity of the victim and so we before my husband had even got home we had to book a ferry crossing to Germany so that my husband could drive all the way to Germany to tell the other victim and that was inexcusable - it shouldn't have to be that somebody might find out by listening to the news or reading it in the press and that was the start of countless reports of - my son, step son Julian was murdered by decapitation and all the reports constantly only referred to Julian as a headless corpse, a headless body case, the headless victim trial and that was so hurtful, instead of saying his name he was a headless body and I think that was terrible. The other thing that happened that was very upsetting was that on the radio and on the TV, it was always "our top story tonight is..." and it wasn't a story it was real life. WE feel that the media deal with crime reports as public entertainment and that is unacceptable.

ML: Avril, given the...those sounds like terrible circumstances to have gone through and I'm sure all listeners will relate to that and try to put themselves in your position but given that there is such public interest in crimes and this was a crime which as you say immediately grabbed attention, how might the press have dealt with it differently do you think?

ASR: I think the press could deal with it differently in several ways. If they didn't talk about a story - a story is something that you read to children at bedtime that is pleasant. If they change the mindset, the subliminal message that news is public entertainment they would be going a long way so instead of saying our top story tonight, they said our prime report tonight is and then go on and state it , that would change the mindset for a start. I think newspapers could be a lot more thoughtful about what they put in their headlines. You know, when you've got a child going to school every day reading about their close family member being referred to as the headless body case, headless corpse case, headless victim trial, it's very difficult. He has a name, you know and that name should be used. And, that happened actually only last week, only last week my local paper used the word axe in the title of a fundraising event, publicity item and I think that was pure thoughtlessness on the persons part. Nevertheless, it's not right more thought should have gone into it.

ML: In those early days, after you became aware of Julian was the victim and you were beginning the process of grieving. Did you manage to protect your privacy from the press at that time; did you have problems of intrusion?

ASR: In the very early days we had reporters knocking on the door asking for a story and we obviously slammed the door in their face and told them to go away, this was not a story. The police, actually, we had some wonderful family liaison officers, Steve Colly and Sian Turner and they were fantastic in helping us. They were there to help us deal with the media. Because obviously on the one hand you need some publicity in order to appeal for information but on the other hand you don't want the intrusion of the press so yes it was very difficult and we found we had to be careful whatever we said because things were taken out of context. Things were highlighted which weren't the main point of what we were trying to get over and so one had to be brief and precise and to the point in order that only the bit we wanted publicised was publicised.

ML: But you readily acknowledge that the press have a role to play in making sure that the search for the perpetrator, further evidence has an important part to play doesn't it.

ASR: yes, yes, yes

ML: Helen do you want to come in?

HL: Avril I know that after this terrible murder of Julian you were upset about the nature of some comments that was made about Julian's life. I understand he was on some mild medication at the time.

ASR: Yes.

HL: And that you were really concerned about the accuracy about what was written about Julian and the kind of person he was. Can you tell us a little about that?

ASR: yes, the way it works is that when one has a trial that the perpetrator has the choice of not standing in the dock and getting cross examined but the victims, the relatives don't have that choice, if they're called to be witnesses they have no choice and it is common practice for the victim, the murdered person to have their character assassinated by the, by the court, by the barrister that's defending the accused because then it doesn't look so bad. She was, you know, she was of loose moral standing so therefore she was asking for it is the common way of trying to lessen the crime that the person has committed and that's not on. It shouldn't matter actually what the person was like at all. And actually you know it's not just the press and the courts that do that. The criminal injuries compensation board refuse compensation to lots of relatives if for instance somebody has been murdered and they have got a history of having been convicted of some kind of drug abuse 20 years before, they're not entitled to any criminal injuries compensation which is outrageous! I mean how can that be, just because somebody did something wrong 20 years before the family of that murdered person isn't entitled to anything. The whole system is skewed in favour of justice for the criminal and not justice for the victims, that's why it's called the Criminal Justice System and not the Victim Justice System.

HL: I can understand how passionate you feel about this and I think everyone who saw the aftermath of the Milly Dowler trial just a few days ago must feel very much the same. How - did that bring it all back to you? When you saw it played out with the Dowler family?

ASR: Every time there is a crime of murder on television or on the radio or in the newspapers it brings it back, every time and it's the same for every member of SAMM support after murder and manslaughter, the charity for which I am one of the trustees. All our families find that this is too painful to bear and it goes on for years and years and years.

HL: You mentioned SAMM which is a charity that works the victims' relatives and helps them cope with this terrible aftermath. You must have come across many families who have been in a similar position to your own. Do people talk often about intrusion of the press and the attack on their privacy?

ASR: Yes, yes, yes. We have a very secure online forum for our members which is only accessible to members and obviously I don't want to disclose what is said in an online forum because that's not appropriate - it's there just because it's secure. But our members are very, very wary generally of talking to the press, media because they've had so many bad experiences.

HL: Thank you.

ML: Avril, just coming back to those that time immediately after you became aware of Julian's murder, did you look for support at that time? We're obviously particularly interested in the protection of privacy but did you look outside for help?

ASR: One of the things that happened - and doesn't happen anymore- when something like this happens to someone is that the family liaison officers who are appointed to the family is given a homicide pack and in it are a range of leaflets and documents and information and in there was actually a leaflet for SAMM support after murder and manslaughter and that's how I came across SAMM and it was months later before I actually contacted them because I was, we were all just too devastated and traumatised to really just function at all. It's know you can't even get your head round going out to buy teabags, everything is very, very difficult. You've got your police officers sitting with you every afternoon for 3 or 4 hours for several months trying to process and proceed the investigation and just coping getting up out of bed in the morning is hard enough let alone with thinking about what else you can do to help yourself. You can't, you can hardly function at all.

ML: So those liaison officers were a very important, very important support for you.

ASR: Very, very - a lifeline.

ML: Did you ever at any point have any anxieties about the confidentiality of your discussions with them or with the police watching them?

ASR: No they were brilliant.

ML: So you have a strong....

ASR: Yeah, they were brilliant, some of our SAMM members don't have as good an experience with the family liaison officers they are appointed. Some police forces around the country don't have as good training for their family liaison officers as our police officers did who were trained at the West Midlands police. In fact there are still cases where family liaison officers go out alone and not in partnerships with another officer, they need to work together because they have to deal with coping with the traumatisation of what has happened to the victims as well and they can't talk to other people, they have their rules of confidentiality so they need to have someone with them so that they can come to terms with what it is they're dealing with and family liaison officers in some parts of the country receive training from our charity SAMM to help them understand what the issues are in dealing with people who've been bereaved through murder and manslaughter.

ML: Have you personally or perhaps has SAMM had any engagement with the press complaints commission to talk about the way that the press deals with cases like this both in terms of coverage and in terms of pressures they place upon victims families?

ASR: No, I'm not aware of it. I'm sure it's happened but I'm not aware of it. We personally didn't ever make a formal complaint, I know I have rung the BBC several times when something was on that didn't quite feel right and by the time the bulletin was next on it had been removed or changed so they always responded quite promptly to our requests and were quite sympathetic. For example, this business I had only last week of using "axe" in the title of my local paper, they were very apologetic. The person who wrote the article wasn't responsible for writing the title and the story is that the person that wrote the title wasn't aware of what they were doing when they included the word "axe" in the title. I personally think that, that person has more responsibility than when dealing with a murder case to take a little bit more care in what they're saying.

ML: Thank you, so what you're saying is that where you have taken matters up with the press you have found them responsive.

ASR: Yes, yes but you know when the trials were going on you know everyday there were things in the paper referring to headless body case headless corpse case, headless victim trial. You know Julian had been decapitated but actually his head was not missing, it wasn't a headless body case and it was inaccurate but we were too traumatised in dealing with the trial to even think about suggesting that the press ought to deal with it differently.

ML: Entirely, absolutely entirely understandable. Helen any more questions from you?
HL: Just one, in terms of the advice that SAMM gives to victims and obviously when victims get in touch with you at first it must be at a particularly difficult time in their lives.

ASR: Mmm hmm (positive response)

HL: What advice do you give them in how to deal with the press?

ASR: Mostly they just want to talk and have someone to listen that knows what they're going through so we...whilst we are there to give support, we don't give people dogmatic advice about this is how it should be done, we say this is an option that is open to you, you may want to do this you may wish to do that but we don't ever force people to do that. We are there as a listening ear and someone that knows what that person is going through.

HL: Thank you

ML: Avril, we'll include a reference to the support for murder and manslaughter the SAMM website on our website along with the transcript of this evidence today. Are there any - I've given each and every witness an opportunity to speak as it were direct to listeners. Do you want to just take that opportunity to say in you own words your views on these issues?

ASR: My views on these issues are that people who write headlines in newspapers should be more thoughtful about what they're doing and think about the impact of what they're saying rather than just trying to write a catchy headline that will sell their newspapers. I think that's one of my main messages and as far as the radio and television goes, I think if they could stop saying....and our top story tonight is because the subliminal message is this is entertainment and this is not entertainment, it's a report on a factual occurrence.

ML: Indeed it is, thank you very much for that Avril and for coming and sharing your experience with us and with the listeners of the PM programme.

ASR: Thank you.

HL: Thank you Avril it was a privilege talking to you.

ASR: Thank you.

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