Watchdogs of the wrongly convicted
: the role of the media in revealing miscarriages of justice

  • Sam Poyser

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


Miscarriages of justice occur far more frequently than we dare to believe (Yant, 1991; Naughton, 2009) and quite simply, ruin people’s lives. Many of these injustices have been revealed and ultimately rectified as a result of work by journalists who have dedicated energy and resources to investigating and publicising them. However, the involvement of the media in this area appears to have diminished over time, leading campaigners to claim that prisoners protesting their innocence should not now place too much faith in the informal involvement of journalists in their cases (Allison, 2004, n.p.). Such claims are of particular concern in the light of recent criticism that the Criminal Cases Review Commission, the formal investigator of miscarriages of justice, is not ‘fit for purpose' (Woffinden, 2010; Laville, 2012).

Using a triangulated research strategy which included interviews, questionnaires, and narrative analysis, this thesis examined the positive role of the media in miscarriages of justice cases in England and Wales (from the 1960s through to the present day); and determined how the media’s involvement in such cases had changed over time.

The results indicated that the media’s major contribution to miscarriages of justice comes in the form of publicity and investigations. Of these, media investigations were found to bring about the biggest impact in a case, in terms of the journalist discovering fresh evidence which subsequently proves to be crucial at a prisoner’s appeal. However, a number of motivations and considerations were found to influence journalists’ decisions upon whether to get involved in miscarriages of justice and which cases to get involved in. These included moralistic motivations and profit-related considerations. Regarding those cases which are taken up by the media, there is a five-stage process (a model of journalistic involvement in miscarriages of justice) which journalists enter into. During this process journalists come up against a number of obstacles which determine whether they can continue with their involvement. But what makes a successful investigative journalist?

Certain attributes may be particularly important in order to achieve success as a journalist in investigating miscarriages of justice, attributes which, the quantitative research strand of this thesis revealed, are similar to those required by criminal investigators. This strand of the thesis also revealed that successful investigators draw upon more qualities from ‘within the person’ than from ‘within the profession’ in order to achieve success.

Journalists’ aims in telling stories about miscarriages of justice are numerous and although these stories share similarities with investigative stories in other genres, they also differ from them. This is particularly so in terms of their endings, as comparison of their structure with that of the fictional detective ‘Whodunit?’ story demonstrates, (i.e. there is no solution to the crime).

It was also found that journalistic involvement in miscarriages has changed over time, from the 1960s, when there was little involvement, to the late 1980s/early 1990s which saw massive media interest in miscarriages. From the mid-90s however, a number of factors, especially increased commercial pressures, began to hamper journalists’ ability to get involved in, and particularly to investigate miscarriages, factors which persist today. Despite such issues, it is argued that some journalists will always remain ‘crusaders in the name of the public right to know’, viewing it as their professional duty to investigate and expose miscarriages of justice. This is fortunate, as until radical changes to the appellate system occur, many prisoners will still, it is argued, need them in the pursuit of freedom from injustice.

Date of AwardJul 2012
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorBecky Milne (Supervisor), Steve Savage (Supervisor) & Diana Bretherick (Supervisor)

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