The Guardian, Patsy and JonBenet Ramsey

One of my earliest posts in this LJ related to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey and the death of Patsy Ramsey.  At the time The Guardian had published an obituary of Patsy Ramsey which, in my view, was laden with innuendo that Patsy Ramsey had been complicit in her daughter’s death – the link to the obituary is in the original post.  At the time I wrote to the reader’s editor of the Guardian and entered a correspondence.  

Dear Sir

I am a solicitor and lecturer in law in Scotland and a regular reader of The Guardian.

From the Guardian I expect respect for certain fundamental positions, particularly that a person is innocent until proved guilty. I do not expect the newspaper to resort to the innuendo in relation to crime found in the red top press – where a nod and a wink can suggest the guilt of someone interviewed by police but never convicted. In the week following the latest developments in the Rachel Nickell murder case and the shocking treatment of Colin Stagg I would expect this to be in the minds of all journalists and editors.

It is a fundamental tenet of Scots and English law on defamation that one cannot defame the dead. Perhaps this tenet can explain the somewhat biased obituary of Patsy Ramsey in The Guardian on 27th June 2006 which through a series of innuendoes implies to me – as a reader – that Patsy Ramsey was guilty of the murder of her daughter JonBenet Ramsey. This obituary is, in my view, not a balanced piece of journalism and does discredit to your newspaper. To identify the innuendo I refer to: stress on the suspicion on the family; a reference to a “self-serving” biography (loaded terminology); the failure to rule out Mrs Ramsey from involvement in the ransom note in a handwriting analysis; references implying that the ransom letter was linked to the Ramseys; the hints (in the references to the “foreign faction now apparently forgotten”) that the Ramseys wriggled to escape culpability; the references to her position in police interviews; and the final substantive paragraph drawn from the book by Steve Thomas which asks “Why would Patsy kill her beloved daughter?”. I read these as a sustained attempt to besmirch the name of Patsy Ramsey, and infer her participation in the murder of her daughter, with little contrary information put before the reader. One passage stands out to me as a lawyer: “In March 2002, the detective and the Ramseys reached a secret settlement in a defamation case the couple brought against him.” The use of the loaded word “secret” suggests that the Ramseys had something to hide ignoring the fact that virtually all legal settlements are secret and that it is common in legal cases for settlement to be reached. Without knowledge of the terms no inference can be drawn from the fact that there is a settlement.

Mrs Ramsey was never prosecuted for murder. She was never convicted. To imply that she was her daughter’s murderer without any attempt at balance within the piece is not of the standard of journalism I would expect in the Guardian. That the police procedure and prosecution were subject to sustained criticism in the ITV and Channel 4 documentaries (one of which is referred to briefly in the obituary) and later by the local district attorney makes the lack of balance to a reader – in my view – inexcusable. In a defamation action in 2003 a district judge held that there was virtually no evidence that the Ramseys had killed their child, in 2002 the District Attorney (supporting earlier investigation by Lou Smits, a retired brought in to the investigation by the local police force) argued that the original investigation was flawed in not pursuing a theory that an intruder was involved (given various contemporaneous scene of crime photos that indicated the possible involvement of an intruder); a failure to investigate non-family DNA found on the clothes of the murdered girl.

The UK documentaries included one from Channel 4 in 1998; Real Crime: Who Killed the Pageant Queen? (from 2001); and Who Killed the Pageant Queen? Suspects (from 2004) and were based on Smits’s investigation. I remember viewing these documentaries (hence my interest in the obituary) and remembering the persuasive nature of the evidence presented in the latter two in particular. While sympathetic to the plight of their family I did not draw to the Ramseys in their interviews within the programme. I found the Ramseys participation in child beauty pageants discussed in the programmes distasteful. However, such distaste does not in my view warrant an obituary of the nature published yesterday.

I would be very grateful if you could look into this matter.

The reply from The Guardian defended the obituary.  I will not quote the reply in full as I am not sure of the copyright position.  However, the reply said,

“The only reason Ms Ramsey’s life was remembered on the page was the suspicion that has hung over her since the murder. She had no other claim on our attention.

Also in their letter they suggested that the civil case I referred to in my original post had not been tested in a criminal court and suggested that evidence still pointed towards the Ramseys involvement in the crime although the case was not clear.  

I replied,

 

Thank you for your reply.  I note your observations. 

As you rightly note I do not allege any factual inaccuracies.  This was not my point.  My understanding of the function of the Reader’s Editor was (as stated in the terms of reference)

To seek to ensure the maintenance of high standards of accuracy, fairness, and balance in our reporting and writing.

I did not prejudge the case in my e-mail but simply stated that the case was more balanced than the obituary suggested and that as the piece was in  my view not balanced (and consequently unfair to the Ramseys) that this was not of the quality I would expect from The Guardian. 

I did not state that the article declared Mrs Ramsey’s guilt,  instead I noted that there was an implication, through innuendo (which of its nature is not an explicit statement but instead the impression given through the presentation of certain facts and the choice of language used in relation to the presentation of these facts), in the original obituary for the reasons I originally offered, and through the use of loaded language (eg “self-serving” and “secret settlement”) and the lack of contrary observations, that Mrs Ramsey was responsible for the murder.    I suggested that the contrary view was not given as much weight as it might have been particularly when:

(a) there was a court action in 2003 (which you correctly indicate was not a criminal court but which applied a balance of probabilities test (a far lower test than beyond reasonable doubt) to suggest that Mrs Ramsey was not guilty of murder.  I am slightly confused by your comment regarding this action.  I note that from a legal perspective it would be odd for a court applying a lower standard than a criminal court to make a declaration that Mrs Ramsey did not commit the crime and then a court applying a higher standard of proof declare that on the same evidence there was sufficient evidence for guilt.  While a declaration of guilt on balance of probabilities would be challengeable in a criminal court (on the basis that the prosecutor may not satsify the higher standard of proof) the converse proposition seems demonstrably to be problematic.  This well-reported court case was not referred to, although the “secret settlement” (a term which I find problematic) in the other defamation case was referred to in the obituary – to me this suggests lack of balance;  and

(b) DNA evidence discovered by an investigator hired by the state that suggested that the Ramseys were not responsible for the crime.

The omission of this material which tended to support a view of Mrs Ramsey’s innocence (eg the DNA evidence) when only that material that tended to support guilt (eg the bed-wetting theory) was referred to suggested to me as a reader with a little knowledge of the case a lack of balance.  That the author of the obituary revised it when publishing the obituary elsewhere (see the final paragraphs in http://www.smh.com.au/news/obituaries/beauty-queen-suspected-of-murdering-her-daughter/2006/06/28/1151174264404.html ) suggests that there may have been some merit in my original suggestion of lack of balance.  I note that the SMH version of the text appears to me more balanced simply through the deletion of the paragraph you refer to in your e-mail which asks Why Mrs Ramsey would want to kill her daughter? and the insertion of one paragraph about the DNA.

Yours

[I should note that in subsequent correspondence I was advised by the Guardian that the paragraphs I referred to in the Sydney Morning Herald obituary had not been written by the obituary writer but added at editorial level in Sydney as the article had been syndicated and that a new statement had been made by the DA office in Boulder.  (This statement was made on the death of Patsy Ramsey a couple of days prior to the Guardian publication but I did not take this point with The Guardian)]

The Guardian replied with comments in relation to an Observer article which I referred to in my first post as to the balance of the evidence.  The matter was left there with a suggestion that someone would be invited to contribute a letter responding to the first obituary.

This morning the news is that someone has been arrested for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey in Thailand.  He will be extradited to the US and face trial before a jury.  The Guardian report on this matter is ten lines long.  Patsy Ramsey’s obituary – which I was advised by The Guardian only appeared in the newspaper because of the suspicion linking her to the case – took up half a Berliner page.

EDITED 7.30 PM  The Guardian now have a detailed report of the story on their website.

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About loveandgarbage

I watch the telly and read when not doing law stuff and plugging my decade and a half old unwatched Edinburgh fringe show.
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