By all means ban the Lucy Letby article—but cherish the spirit behind it

 A New Yorker investigation into a notorious case raises important questions about our legal process. We should celebrate those who never stop asking questions

May 18, 2024
Image: Press Gazette/Alamy
Image: Press Gazette/Alamy

Among the truest things Boris Johnson ever said—admittedly a niche category—was his observation on his way out of Downing Street: “The herd is powerful—and when the herd moves, it moves.”

The saying came to mind after reading an extraordinary 13,000-word article in the current New Yorker, in which one journalist, Rachel Aviv, ignored the herd.

The link to the article is here, but if you’re living in the UK that won’t help you much: the piece has been geo-blocked by the magazine’s lawyers so that it cannot be accessed in Britain. Nor, for the same legal reasons, can anyone say much about it.

The maverick Tory MP David Davis did give us a clue by using parliamentary privilege to question what he called the “defiance of open justice” in blocking Brits from reading the article, which is about Lucy Letby, the former nurse, who was last year found guilty by a jury of murdering seven babies and attempting to kill a further six at the Countess of Chester hospital in northwest England.

Mr Davis said the piece “raised enormous concerns about both the logic and competence of the statistical evidence that was a central part of that trial.”

A paragraph in Aviv’s story tells how, after the case, Cheshire police announced they had made an hour-long documentary film about the case with “exclusive access to the investigation team” produced by its communications department. The Times subsequently reported about a scramble among studios and production houses to win access to the police and prosecutors to make a documentary, which could potentially be distributed by Netflix.

And then Rachel Aviv wrote her piece. Going against the herd.

The reason we’re not allowed to read it in the UK is that there is a retrial of Letby scheduled for June, and British contempt of court laws are strict about the possibility of prejudicing a jury.

Forty years ago, I remember meeting the 80-year old former Daily Express crime correspondent, Percy Hoskins, for a drink in what was then the journalists’ wine bar, El Vino, in Fleet Street.

He uncorked a bottle of Louis Boyier champagne—for that’s how old crime correspondents behaved back then—as he remembered how he’d been just about the only journalist in 1957 to believe in the innocence of Dr John Bodkin Adams.

He’d just written a book about the case, which contained a piece from the former Labour leader (and ex-editor of Tribune) Michael Foot, inveighing against the wild and prejudicial press coverage of the time (“Yard Prove Mass Poisoning: Mystery of 300 women.”)

Dr Bodkin Adams was acquitted—against the movement of the herd, but with the sympathetic coverage of the Daily Express. The proprietor, Lord Beaverbrook, phoned his crime man to say: “Two men have been acquitted today: Adams and Hoskins.”

To this day there is a heated debate about whether Bodkin Adams was in fact a precursor to Harold Shipman or simply an attentive country doctor who charmed his elderly patients so much that many of them left him bequests. But I was belatedly glad that at least one reporter was prepared to ignore the herd.

For a long time, the herd didn’t question the prosecution of hundreds of sub-postmasters. For more than 16 years the herd was happy to accept that the six men jailed in 1975 for an IRA bombing in Birmingham were guilty as sin. Then along came Chris Mullin, later an MP but then a Granada TV journalist, who doggedly refused to move with the herd.

Mullin tracked down the men who were really responsible for the atrocity and, nine years after the Birmingham Six had been locked up, published a book which argued there had been a miscarriage of justice. It earned him a headline in the Sun: “Loony MP backs bomb gang.”

There is that risk with bucking the trend or ignoring the herd: people will queue up to deride you. I remember one veteran media commentator sneering at my colleague Nick Davies back in 2009 when he first unmasked the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal. There was nothing in it, he smirked, and Davies was “the sort of journalist who can find a scandal in a jar of tadpoles.”

That was, for two years, very much the view of the herd, which steadfastly ignored the story. £1bn in payouts and 31m deleted emails later, it’s clear the herd was 100 per cent wrong—but at the time there was a smug, unquestioning comfort in swimming with the current.

Of course, the loners who go it alone are not always right. The great investigative writer Paul Foot argued for years that a man called James Hanratty should never have been hanged for the so-called A6 murder of Michael Gregsten in 1961. While he was right about many of his campaigns, DNA evidence eventually seemed to show “beyond doubt” that Hanratty was, indeed, guilty.

But I’m glad that Foot ploughed his lonely furrow, if only because the reasonable doubts he raised about the conviction influenced a debate about the restoration of capital punishment.

He admitted to being “intrigued and obsessed” about the case all his adult life. Thank God for at least a few obsessives. Three cheers for the occasional cranks, contrarians, sceptics, dissenters or diggers. Here’s to those who can view even a jar of tadpoles with a quizzical eye.

The world doesn’t need a single more conspiracy theorist. But it does need people who are prepared to devote weeks, if not months, to evaluating evidence with an open mind.

The herd, as Johnson said, is powerful. But it is not always right. 

Update: the original text misstated the nature of Letby’s retrial next month, which concerns one count of attempted murder. The article has now been amended