I enjoyed ITV’s Code Of A Killer very much on Monday (6th April), and was fascinated not only by the story – of how DNA profiling was used for the first time in a murder case – but also the way 1980s Leicestershire was lovingly recreated. Hitting Twitter after the show I picked up on comments made by crime writer Maureen Carter, who worked as a TV reporter in the Midlands during the time. She remarked that she thought the show told the story very well and authentically, so I asked her if she’d mind answering a few questions about what it was like to be a crime reporter back in those days, especially at a time when a double-murder case not only shook the local community but also featured a groundbreaking approach to investigation. Maureen kindly took some time to answer my questions. After the jump I’ve included her full correspondence because it’s just so fascinating and interesting – from her time as reporting the murders of Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth and subsequent cases, and the techniques she and her colleagues used to report such harrowing events.
Crime always has a ripple effect but particularly so when a teenage girl is raped and murdered in a small community. When, three years later, a second girl was raped, murdered and found in a similar location nearby the impact was deeply unsettling and – as it turned out – far-reaching. People who lived in the area were afraid, suspicious, angry. The term serial killer wasn’t bandied about in the early 1980s like it is now but if a killer had struck twice… And was still at large? And was believed to be local?
Was it any wonder the detective leading the hunt was keen to explore the possibilities of DNA profiling? A technique never before used in the UK to identify a killer. I remember covering the first mass screening. It involved 5,000 local men and it was big news. I seem to recall a packed village hall with lots of police, press – and potential. Few people back then realised just how significant DNA fingerprinting would become – the impact it would have on the way crimes are investigated.
If I was covering the story today the item would go out live. I’d be at the location in front of camera interviewing the main players and linking to other packages. In the early eighties, everything was shot on film; I’d drive the rushes back to Pebble Mill. The film took around forty minutes to develop in what was fondly known as ‘the soup’. This gave a reporter time to work on a script and decide picture priority before the edit. If there was time, the script would be recorded on track – if not it would be voiced live in the studio.
It was all so different. No mobile phones, no internet, no Dr Google. A reporter’s best friend – well, one of them – was their contacts’ book crammed with numbers of experts, specialists, police officers, politicians, professors – people
who told what you needed to know: a good journalist doesn’t know everything, but certainly knows how to find out.
And the best way of covering crime stories – any story – was to get out there and knock doors: find and talk to the people affected: families, neighbours, victims. I think working for the BBC helped open some of those doors. It was well-loved, well-regarded; people had huge respect for it and it had more viewers. Until 1982 when Channel4 came on air, there were only three stations for people to watch – let alone appear on. No one had heard of reality TV, instant celebrity, round the clock programming. For most people appearing on television was a novelty, for others it was because something important had happened in their lives. I found that for some people who were experiencing terrible tragedy, the loss of someone close – talking to a reporter could be cathartic. I’m not convinced that’s still the case.
I’m not sure the relationship between the police and the media was closer 30-odd years ago – it was certainly easier. Pre-Leveson, Firkin, Hacked Off – how could it not be? I think if police officers respected a reporter they could be more forthcoming; if they knew a reporter was trustworthy, detectives were more willing to share information, pass the odd tip. Again, I think working for the BBC helped. I had to get the facts right. And those facts would reach a wider audience.
I worked alongside scores of detectives; interviewed officers at crime scenes, attended countless news conferences. The relationship between the police and the media has always fascinated me. It’s one of the reasons I chose to write crime fiction. I reflect and explore the – often thorny – relationship in most of my novels. Thing is, the police need the press and the press need the police, but their priorities are very different. For instance, my deadline is only a date. My victims only appear in the pages of a book. I put whatever words I want in the mouths of my detectives.
The Code Of A Killer relates a true story with real victims, grieving families, and genuine police officers. The programme makers have done a brilliant job. For me it was like being taken back in time to a place that still evokes dark memories and emotions. The very name The Black Pad is enough to send shivers down the spine. I remember the path well: it was cold and dank and dripped with menace. When the leading detective played by David Threlfall attended both crime scenes, I liked the fact the camera stayed on the actor’s face. No gratuitous lingering shots of the victims’ bodies. Threlfall’s expressions conveyed everything: grief, sorrow, anger, revulsion for the killer.
Other cases have stood out for me over the years. It’s not always the big ones that have the greatest impact. I remember covering the murder of an elderly woman whose body was found on her allotment just a few streets from where I lived at the time. When I arrived the scene was strewn with daffodils. She’d been picking them to take home when – as the facts emerged – a youth attacked her and stole a few pounds to buy his next fix. My revulsion and pity at the nature and pointlessness of the killing was exacerbated when I learned later that day that I’d known – albeit briefly – the victim. Before her retirement she’d been a doctor. And for a few minutes one afternoon, I’d been her patient.
The image of daffodils spattered with blood was the genesis for one of my books, Dead Old. In fact, my novels almost always develop from experiences I had and people I came across during the years in journalism. Writing crime fiction means I can explore issues that interest me in depth and – unlike in reporting – I make it up as I go along!
I’m currently writing the latest in my new series which feature – what else? – a female DI and a female TV reporter. My second series has a lead character called DS Bev Morriss and I’m delighted to say the series has been optioned for TV. Nothing’s set in stone yet, but I’d love to see the books on the small screen. Maybe if David Threlfall is available…
For more information on Maureen and her DC Bev Morriss series (as well as her DI Quinn novels), visit her website here.
For our interview with David Threlfall go here
For our interview with John Simm go here
For our review of episode one of Code Of A Killer go here