Does the Manchester Evening News have questions to answer about its coverage of a controversial trial?
A criminal conspiracy case raises concerns about how the media covers young black defendants
Dear members — today’s edition delves into the recent conviction of ten young men from Moston. The case has sparked public anger because four of the jailed men took no part in any violence and were dragged into a conspiracy charge because of a small number of messages they had sent in the days after the murder of their friend.
Since the sentencing, which resulted in those four men getting eight-year prison terms, the Guardian has highlighted the case and Lucy Powell, the MP for Manchester Central and shadow culture secretary, has written to the justice secretary about it. On Twitter, a campaigner called Roxy Legane who knows the young men and followed the trial has accused the Manchester Evening News of spreading the prosecution’s framing of the case, which cast them as members of a criminal gang, and failing to report on the defence’s arguments.
What roles does local media have in conveying the nuances of trials like this — and does the MEN have questions to answer? Jack Dulhanty has written a thought-provoking piece below.
Your Mill briefing
Is the organised far-right now jumping on the bandwagon in Oldham? A reader in the borough has sent us photos of flyers distributed last week by the white nationalist group Patriotic Alternative, set up a few years ago by the neo-Nazi Mark Collett. The flyers aren’t tailored to the (still totally unevidenced) allegations of mass grooming and council cover-ups in Oldham (which we covered in detail recently) — they carry generic messages about British girls falling victim to sexual abuse. “The reason for these cover-ups is no doubt the ethnic component of these crimes,” the flyer says, claiming that the scandal “exposes the lengths that the establishment will go to in order to protect their ‘multicultural project’ from criticism.” If you’ve received flyers like this, please get in touch. And to go deeper on this story, read our recent members-only post: "What happened when Raja Miah’s prophecy failed?” As we discussed on a special podcast episode, the BNP had a brief moment of popularity in Oldham after the 2001 riots. Does Patriotic Alternative see the recent upheaval caused by Raja Miah as a similar opening?
Most of the children attending Manchester Communication Academy in Harpurhey are living in poverty. Over 900 of the school's 1,200 students are suffering what is described as "hybrid poverty" — floating between the poverty line and absolute poverty. "It's absolutely toxic because it hides," says Dr Patsy Hodson, the school's vice principal. "You can walk round the school, see all these kids beautifully dressed walking round and literally their parents are not surviving." Hodson describes children living in vermin-infested homes ridden with mould. In data released yesterday by the End Child Poverty coalition, two GM local authorities — Manchester and Oldham — appear in the 20 authorities with the highest rates of child poverty.
On a rather different note, Manchester has placed no.13 in Time Out's Best Cities in the World list — beating New York, London and Singapore. Lauded for its hospitality scene, progressive spirit and resilience, Time Out says the city is in "great shape" and that neighbourhoods like Ancoats and Prestwich (not really in Manchester but we'll take it) are some of the "best and easiest places to live in the world." Yet, in the throes of this heady praise, it's notable that only 11% of Mancunians said they thought Manchester was a beautiful city. That's the lowest in the world.
Which brings us neatly on to Jonathan Schofield's recent long read for Manchester Confidential, which lays out how Castlefield can be saved from looking rather neglected and uncared for. "If Manchester, uniquely, has a place in its city centre where the oldest industrial canal meets the first canal to cross the Pennines, where the oldest passenger railway station sits in a mighty museum round the corner from a brand new arts centre, where the Roman origins of the city sit under a spectacular set of viaducts, then why the hell is the city not exploiting this incredible urban landscape to its maximum?"
Andy Burnham’s bus reforms are facing what might be their final legal test. Burnham is attempting to use powers granted to Greater Manchester in its devolution deal to bring buses back under public control, ending decades of deregulation and introducing a franchising system like London’s. But Diamond bus owner Rotala is challenging that decision at the Court of Appeal, arguing that the process Burnham took was unlawful. We know that Mill readers are exceptionally dedicated to the bus reform story, but surely none will click to watch the appeal hearing? Go deeper: After 35 years, Greater Manchester prepares to dismantle Margaret Thatcher's bus legacy.
Picture of the past
Re-elected Labour MP for Oldham West Michael Meacher (left) stands alongside the BNP candidate in Oldham Nick Griffin in June 2001. Griffin wore a gag over his mouth after candidates were banned from making speeches in the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre, where the authorities feared unrest. In his losing campaign, Griffin said non-white Oldhamers should be given money to return to their countries of origin. "White people in Oldham are being made to feel like second-class citizens while the Asians are given a free hand,” he told one journalist, and proposed building a “peace wall” to divide the town’s communities. Between Griffin and another BNP candidate, the party got 12,000 votes in Oldham.
Does the Manchester Evening News have questions to answer about its coverage of a controversial trial?
By Jack Dulhanty
On March 9th this year, the Manchester Evening News reported on the opening of a major criminal trial at Manchester Crown Court. The headline read: “Gang planned to murder rivals following death of leader, 16, in revenge attack, jury hears”.
Within hours of publishing the story, the newspaper was taking heat online. Roxy Legane, who knows some of the defendants and has become a vocal advocate for them in recent months, criticised the headline on Twitter. “We are a day into prosecutions opening statements, this is an 8-10 week case,” she tweeted, sharing a screenshot of the MEN headline, and soon her tweet had hundreds of engagements.
“There will be many who dispute being in a gang. Many are being tried only on texts, not actual violence,” she tweeted. “When we challenge this stuff, we are not saying violence hasn’t occurred, but that the way black boys are collectively punished and called a gang, is unjust and PROBLEMATIC.” A news editor at the paper replied to one of her tweets saying that if she had a complaint, they would look into it.
The next day, the MEN published a second report on proceedings, but this time it made a small change to how it portrayed the case. “Alleged gang went ‘looking for targets’ in Rochdale following murder of their leader, jury told,” was the headline, and the word “alleged” appeared before the word gang again in the story’s intro. Whether or not they were responding to Legane’s tweet, the framing of the case had subtly shifted.
Earlier this month, the ten defendants were sentenced to prison terms ranging from eight to 21 years after the jury agreed they had conspired together to avenge the death of their friend John Soyoye, who was murdered in November 2020. The case has caused public disquiet in recent days, with a local MP writing to the justice secretary about how four of the men who took no part in any violence have ended up with eight-year prison sentences. It has also provoked street protests in Manchester, with demonstrators holding placards outside the crown court saying “the system is racist”.
An excellent report by Helen Pidd in the Guardian, which has brought widespread attention to the case, described how one of the four men was the head boy at his school and had written a book about inspiring young black Mancunians, prompting an invitation to parliament in 2019. Another was set to get first-class honours in his computer science and artificial intelligence course at university. As a subsequent story in the Guardian put it:
Those four 19-year-olds – Ademola Adedeji, Raymond Savi, Omolade Okoya and Azim Okunola – had no weapons, committed no violence and did not go on any “scoping missions” to seriously harm those responsible for Soyoye’s death. But they took part in the group chat with boys who did, and were jailed for eight years for conspiracy to cause grievous bodily harm.
The four young men are now preparing to appeal their sentences and their convictions, with a lawyer representing one of them planning to argue that the jury was misdirected by the judge. The conspiracy law was created in an age before smartphones made it much easier to send lots of off-hand communications in the heat of a moment and some lawyers believe it is being used too widely now. Comparisons have been made with “joint enterprise” laws, also used to convict many groups of defendants who were said by prosecutors to be members of gangs, and which the supreme court found in 2016 had been wrongly interpreted for 30 years.
But it’s not just legal arguments that this case is throwing up — it’s also highlighted concerns about how the media covers criminal trials, and in particular how it allows prosecution arguments to frame the public perception of groups of black men.
Last week, Legane — who as well as knowing some of the defendants is also the director of online campaign group Kids of Colour, which has been drawing attention to the case — received an interview request from a journalist at the MEN. “You may be clueless to how insulting it is to receive this from the MEN at this stage,” Legane wrote back, “The MEN have caused a significant amount of distress to many lives over the last few months of this case.”
She went on to write:
On the 1st day of the trial, one of your MEN colleagues attended the prosecution's opening statements, and released an article stating that a 'gang' had sought revenge for their friend's murder. No questioning, no critical eye: released like fact, despite weeks of context to come. From then, over the 9 week case, there was no attendance from the MEN.
This is the crux of the criticism of the MEN over this case — that they only presented the prosecution’s view of things but gave much less weight to the defence arguments. Campaigners say this has distorted the young men’s stories and reinforced a racist framing of the defendants which falsely characterised them as members of a gang.
When we approached the MEN for comment, a spokesperson pointed out that the newspaper did cover one day of the trial after the prosecution opening, a story which focused on one of the defendants who had gone on to commit a violent offence. They told us:
It is our duty to provide our readers with a factual and accurate account of the trials we cover. We take court reporting laws very seriously, and therefore our reporting and the language we used directly reflected the case and verdict as heard in court, as well as the specific comments made by the judge.
The strict laws surrounding court reporting in this country, which guard against the risk of prejudicing a jury during a trial, mean journalists can only report what is said during a day’s proceedings while a trial is active. Young journalists sent to their first court jobs are taught that you can only tell your readers what the jury has heard that day. Introducing any opinion, context or facts that were not mentioned in front of the jury runs the risk of being “in contempt of court”, a criminal offence which can carry jail time.