Journalist who campaigned on behalf of those he believed were victims of miscarriage of justice
11 May 2018 | Duncan Campbell | The Guardian
No one did more to highlight issues of miscarriage of justice over the past three decades than the journalist and author Bob Woffinden, who has died of mesothelioma, aged 70.
He was a tireless campaigner on behalf of those who he believed had been wrongly convicted, and adept at spotting the key details that might lead to their cases being referred back to the court of appeal.
His books Miscarriages of Justice (1987) and The Nicholas Cases: Casualties of Justice (2016) are essential reading for anyone interested in the subject. In the tradition of Ludovic Kennedy and Paul Foot, he investigated dozens of cases on behalf of the unfairly jailed.
Born in Birmingham, the son of Joan (nee Wright), a school head cook, and Ray Woffinden, a laboratory foreman in a plastics factory, Bob was educated at King Edward VI school in Lichfield, Staffordshire, and studied politics at Sheffield University.
His initial work in journalism was at the New Musical Express, and this led to his earliest books, The Beatles Apart (1981) and The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Rock (1982), co-written with Nick Logan. He also wrote for the Listener magazine.
But already his interest was in miscarriages of justice, which were just starting to be recognised as a major problem in the criminal justice system, as a result of the cases of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four.
He compiled what would be the first – and remains the best – comprehensive examination of the subject, Miscarriages of Justice. “I wish I had written it myself,” was Kennedy’s response at the time of its publication.
Meanwhile he had moved from print journalism to television, with Yorkshire TV. As a producer of its current affairs programme First Tuesday, he specialised in cases involving the law and the environment.
One of his films, on the 1981 Spanish “cooking oil scandal” that led to 1,000 deaths, won prizes at international television festivals. The programme exposed evidence that the real cause of the deaths was not imported cooking oils, as the authorities wanted to suggest, but pesticides used on tomatoes.
He also produced, for Channel 4, the 1992 film Hanratty: The Mystery of Deadman’s Hill, about the case of James Hanratty, who was executed in 1962 for the murder of Michael Gregsten in what was known as the A6 murder.
He later wrote Hanratty: The Final Verdict (1997) and his work led to the retesting of exhibits for DNA and an unsuccessful appeal in 2002 as the results indicated that Hanratty was indeed guilty; Bob continued to believe in his innocence, arguing that, after so many years, the DNA could have been contaminated.
He was involved in many other high-profile cases. One notable success was the overturning of the conviction of a 15-year-old boy, Philip English, for the murder of a policeman in Gateshead in a “joint enterprise” case.
With a colleague, Richard Webster, he helped to establish the innocence of two young nursery nurses from Newcastle, Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie, who had been wrongly condemned as child abusers in a widely publicised social services report.
Bob tried to meet the people who contacted him from prison about their cases, and he won a landmark legal victory when the House of Lords gave prisoners proclaiming their innocence the right to receive visits from journalists – something that had become, and remains, difficult.
His last book, The Nicholas Cases, was an analysis of 10 wrongful convictions, the title coming from St Nicholas, who in Byzantine times halted the execution of three innocent men and could thus claim to be the patron saint of the wrongfully convicted.
“He was a good storyteller,” said Richard Ingrams, author of Ludo and the Power of the Book, the recent biography of Kennedy. “I read Bob’s book and realised that things are probably worse now than they were.”
One of Bob’s characteristics was a willingness to explore controversial cases, and the book includes that of Gordon Park, convicted of the murder of his wife, Carol, who disappeared in 1976 and whose body was found in Coniston Water in 1997, giving the case its title of the “Lady in the Lake”. Park, convicted in 2005, hanged himself in prison in 2010. Bob also took on the case of Sion Jenkins, the deputy headmaster convicted of murdering his foster daughter, Billie-Jo, whose conviction was quashed in 2004.
His book Bad Show (2015) written with James Plaskett, suggested that Major Charles Ingram, famously accused of winning the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? quiz show through the strategic coughs of an ally in the audience, was innocent. The play Quiz, by James Graham, which premiered last year and is currently playing in the West End, was partly based on this book.
Bob was very critical of the fact that much of the media had lost interest in investigating such time-consuming cases or even covering trials properly. “In the realm of criminal justice, the media betrays us all on a daily basis,” he wrote in an article for the Justice Gap last year.
He continued to report prodigiously for the Guardian, the Times, the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail. Behind an open and genial manner lay a steely determination which endeared him to many. To the end, he remained the most collegiate of journalists, always willing to assist, advise and share.
He is survived by his wife, Anne, whom he married in 1980, their daughter, Kate, son, Eddie, and grandchildren, Ella and Jake, and his mother.
• Robert Woffinden, writer and campaigner, born 31 January 1948; died 1 May 2018
Original Link | Bob Woffinden obituary
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