When a 30-year-old truck driver named Peter Sutcliffe was arrested in January for the "Yorkshire Ripper" murders of 13 young women in red-light districts of northern British cities, the checkbooks of Britain's tabloid newspapers came out immediately.
Sutcliffe's wife, Sonia, was offered as much as $250,000 for her exclusive story. His father, John, was paid more than $10,000 for interviews and family photographs. Olivia Reivers, a prostitute picked up by Sutcliffe as his next intended victim on the night he was arrested, sold her story for more than $8,000. Friends of Sutcliffe received hundreds to thousands of dollars for pictures and recollections of him. Even barroom acquaintances picked up $10 to $20 for each tidbit of information.
Although it is an old and enduring tradition in Britain, "checkbook journalism" has once again caused national controversy here in the aftermath of Sutcliffe's conviction and life imprisonment following a sensational trial that ended a week ago.
An emotional campaign against checkbook journalism in criminal cases has been mounted by Doreen Hill, whose college student daughter Jacqueline was the ripper's last victim. Her tearful appearances on television and angry letters to newspapers, politicians, business and labor leaders and the queen, arguing that "nobody should make anything from my daughter's death," have elicited a sympathetic response.
Buckingham Palace conveyed the "distaste" of Queen Elizabeth II for payments in the Sutcliffe case. Britain's Press Council is investigating Hill's formal complaint against four newspapers, which could be publicly censured. Some members of Parliament have urged legislation banning payments to criminal suspects and their relatives and government officals are studying laws in other countries to see what might be done here.
But most British media, particularly the mass-circulation national tabloids perennially engaged in cut-throat competition, remain more willing than the American press to pay for information, interviews and private photographs in most situations, including criminal cases.
Direct payments to criminals for ghost-written "memoirs" of their exploits are rarer than a generation ago, but payments to their relatives and crime witnesses and surviving victims continue to proliferate. The wives of the great train robbers, security scandal prostitute Christine Keeler and the government's principal witnesses in the trial of former Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe, who was acquitted of conspiracy to murder a male model claimed a homosexual relationship with him, are among those who have sold their stories to the press in celebrated cases.
Like these, the Yorkshire Ripper case drew media and money like bees to honey. Roger Cross, crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post, which gained early access to much of the Sutcliffe family without paying anything, said dozens of notes were sent by reporters camped outside their homes promising big payments for exclusive interviews and pictures.
Britain's largest-selling newspaper, the racy weekly tabloid News of the World, with a circulation of more than 4 million, unsuccessfully offered Sonia Sutcliffe a $250,000 contract it later withdrew under pressure generated by Doreen Hill's campaign. A more sedate Sunday newspaper, The Observer, also sought to arrange a lucrative book deal with Sonia Sutcliffe and best-selling author Piers Paul Read, but then "thought better of it," according to a senior Observer editor.
Sutcliffe's wife has thus far turned down all offers.
But his father accepted just over $10,000 from the Daily Mail, which became the subject of Doreen Hill's first public complaint. He also gave a number of free interviews and made an appearance on BBC television for a standard $20 "disturbance fee."
Associate editor Stuart Stephen of the Daily Mail defended its payment as a reasonable fee for photographs from the Sutcliffe family album and an opportunity to gain from John Sutcliffe "sufficient insight into the behavior" of his son to produce a story that "would have been of immense importance from a sociological and criminological point of view."
These plans went awry when John Sutcliffe proved less insightful than expected, Stephen said, and when Peter Sutcliffe was forced to trial rather than being allowed to plead guilty to manslaughter under the influence of mental illness. Much of what the British press had been gathering about Sutcliffe for publication after strict pretrial publicity restrictions ended came out anyway at the trial, which included testimony by Sutcliffe in his own defense.
Sunday People, another tabloid weekly, paid Sutcliffe's best friend, Trevor Birdsall, and a woman friend he frequently visited, Theresa Douglas, for their exclusive stories. The newspaper's editor, Geoffrey Pinnington, refused to discuss the payments.
Birdsall was an important trial witness because he drove around redlight districts with Sutcliffe the nights of two of the murders. Questioned by the prosecution about his arrangement with Sunday People, Birdsall said he received about $1,000 plus nearly $150 a week in expenses for more than three months and a room in a hotel on several occasions.
Sunday People employes also kept Birdsall away from other reporters to protect their investment, another time-honored British journalistic tradition known as "body-snatching." When Birdsall's testimony ended, three Sunday People employes bundled him out of the courthouse and into a taxi past jeering reporters and bystanders.
Theresa Douglas was kept similarly secluded. Yet the competing Sunday Mirror published an account of Peter Sutcliffe's attentions to her from other sources and an interview with John Sutcliffe that contained this footnote: "The Sunday Mirror, of course, has made no payment to John Sutcliffe."
News editor Peter Wilson of the Sunday Mirror said that although the newspaper does pay for some stories, it did not have to this time. The Sunday Mirror, like some other British newspapers, also decided not to pay prospective courtroom witnesses in the Sutcliffe case because "it could color their testimony," according to Wilson.
Britain's attorney general, Sir Michael Havers, who prosecuted Sutcliffe, warned the jury that witnesses got or were offered payments by the media and said, "If money has been paid and more is available, it is one of the considerations that might tempt a witness to gild the lily, to make his story worth more money."
But Daily Mail editor Stephen said the question should not be whether the media pay people in this or other cases, but whether the information obtained is important to the public interest and used responsibly. He cited memoirs by controversial figures like Hitler aide Albert Speer, whose publication and worldwide press syndication enriched Speer but served a historical purpose.
"The critics have to look at the way it's used," said Stepen. "The end product has to be judged, not the means. The ethics on this are not clear-cut."
A senior editor at The Observer also defended its practice of buying information "from time to time. That's the business we're in."
He said a recent Observer investigation of illicit weapons exports from Britain with export licenses offered for sale by some foreign diplomats here required paying for the initial information and then buying one of the export licenses in an undercover transaction.
Deputy editor Peter Thompson of the Daily Mirror, which decided not to pay anyone in the Sutcliffe case, added that it is otherwise "quite normal" to pay for good information. In addition, "a reporter might buy someone a lunch, tide them over with a fiver or pay their taxi ride home," he said. "If that's paying for a story, it's done all the time."