The veil of Britain's restrictive pretrial publicity laws has descended over the Yorkshire Ripper murder case, producing curiously curtailed and disjointed media coverage of the new year's biggest news story -- the capture and charging of the man police believe to be the Ripper.
It had been one of Britain's most thoroughly covered running stories for several years. Countless newspaper columns and hours of air time were devoted to the hunt for the Ripper and details of the mutilation murders of 13 young women in industrial northern England between 1975 and late last year.
Newspapers periodically published long reprises with pictures of all the victims and lists and charts of the times, locations, injuries and clues of the crimes. There were interviews with distraught relatives of the victims and with police officials supervising Britain's biggest manhunt. Television cameras went into the squad room of the West Yorkshire police manhunt team.
During last weekend, when police revealed they were questioning a new, prime suspect in the case, it all began again: more reprises, more pictures and lists of the victims, more details of the crimes and of the suspect's arrest, including information from several police press conferences.
But today, just as the case seemed to have been solved, the Yorkshire Ripper virtually disappeared from the British media.
There were, of course, front page stories and prominent television and radio coverage of the fact that Peter W. Sutcliffe, a truck driver for a northern England engineering firm, was charged in court yesterday with last November's murder of university student Jacqueline Hill. But it was left unsaid that police ended their manhunt for the Yorkshire Ripper after Sutcliffe's arrest.
The dramatic change in coverage was due to Britain's pretrial publicity restrictions on what can be published about someone after he or she has been charged with a crime. Under penalty of contempt of court, which could mean a prison sentence, the media must limit its coverage to the name, address and occupation of the person charged, the brief police statement of the crime, the proceedings in open court and information gathered outside court that does not tie the accused to the crime.
So the account of yesterday's court proceedings in two national newspapers, The Times and Guardian, was less than a dozen paragraphs long, much of it devoted to crowd scenes outside the courthouse. No mention was made in either story of the Yorkshire Ripper crimes or investigation.
The most sensational tabloids had to be content with long interviews with Sutcliffe's relatives and friends, and a prostitute arrested with Sutcliffe in his parked car Friday night. These stories deftly skirted the Yorkshire Ripper crimes and the fact that many of the victims had been prostitutes. The most heavy-handed story, in the tabloid Daily Express, described "a near-carnival atmosphere in the red-light districts of northern cities last night" without explaining precisely the reason for it.
"As soon as the man is charged, strict rules come into being," said David Chipp, editor-in-chief of the Press Association. Much of what it put out yesterday about Sutcliffe's past never made the newspapers today.
"You go as hard as you can after an arrest and get everything out you can, while praying he won't be charged before it's published," Chipp said. "But we held back some things, including his picture."
Chipp pointed out that contempt legislation being considered by Parliament would trigger pretrial publicity restrictions at an even earlier point, when a suspect is arrested or when an arrest warrant is issued.
"That's why we're fighting hard against the new contempt bill," he said.
But Chipp added that he disapproved of the complete freedom American media have to publish anything and everything about a suspect before his trial, some of which Chipp believes can prejudice his right to a fair trial despite judges' instructions to jurors to disregard press coverage.