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Guilty until proved innocent

It is a long time since I have contributed anything to White Rose. And it is a long time since this article by journalist and novelist Alexandra Campbell appeared, in the Telegraph, on May 14th. Apologies on both counts, but better occasional contributions and late reports of White Rose relevant material than never, I hope you agree.

This article did not just appear in the Telegraph. It was also reproduced in full, in the “last word” slot, towards the end of the “all you need to know about everything that matters” magazine (i.e. lots of good bits from all the different British newspapers) The Week, of May 29th, Issue 462. That was where and (approximately) when I first read the piece.

Ms. Campbell, on the basis of vague CCTV “evidence”, was falsely accused of a crime, and it took a scarily long time for the system to stop persecuting her.

Concluding paragraphs:

“In theory,” said Mark, “it’s innocent until proved guilty. In practice, whoever makes the allegation first is believed.”

Now that we are all picked up on CCTVs up to 300 times a day, and can also easily be identified electronically through swipe cards (health clubs, the office, season tickets, etc), there is a real risk of someone linking you to a passing resemblance on a fuzzy CCTV image and making an allegation against you.

It had taken about eight months to get to this point of the inquiry and I was terrified of enduring months’ more worry before I was cleared, but the police followed up my brother’s statement quickly and dropped the charges. However, they told me that current policy is to leave fingerprints, pictures and allegations permanently on file.

Checking subsequently with the police press office, I find that “fingerprints may not be held for more than 42 days”, but I find it scary that nobody really seems to know. I suspect our civil rights are being chipped away all the time in the name of crime and terrorism prevention.

The whole thing, I discovered, was based on a breach of the Data Protection Act. Companies using CCTV are supposed to show images only to authorised people, such as the police. The supermarket involved should never have allowed the receptionist and the credit card victim to see footage on demand. The receptionist, himself in charge of CCTV, should have known this. He wasn’t even following his own company’s code of practice, which asks staff who are suspicious of members to take the matter to a manager first. But he has done nothing illegal.

And neither have I. But while I struggle to have my records deleted from police files, he has drifted on and cannot, so far, be contacted. Nobody knows if he made the allegation out of boredom, spite, or genuine, if misplaced, civic-mindedness. It’s Kafkaesque, said friends. It’s a joke, said others. But it wasn’t fiction and it wasn’t funny. I was actually very lucky.

I might not have been able to prove where I was. If I’d been a lawyer, police officer, accountant or worked in financial services, my career and livelihood would also have been on the line, and if I’d been a celebrity, the story would have been splashed all over the papers before it was disproved. If the allegation had been connected to terrorism, I would have been jailed immediately.

I used to think that if you didn’t break the law, you had nothing to fear from it. Now I know that if this can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.

1 comment to Guilty until proved innocent

  • Mark Ellott

    I read the article last week in “The Week” and should have been horrified but wasn’t. Somehow it all seemed too predictable. The police when presented with a suspect (any suspect) are all to tempted to make the case “fit” irrespective of evidence to the contrary. If they have an expert witness to say it must have been the accused (because they say so and they are, after all, an expert) then all the better. It is up to the poor sap who has been accused to prove their innocence.

    At least we don’t yet have the awful American plea bargaining system…