The British press put itself in the middle of a story Monday when the tabloid Daily Mirror opened its checkbook to vigilante Tony Martin on the day he left custody.
In August 1999, Martin shot and killed a 16-year-old burglar and wounded an accomplice when the pair broke into his isolated farmhouse, Bleak House. Eight months later, Martin was convicted of murder when a jury decided his actions went beyond reasonable self-defense; as the Guardian recalled, “he waited with a loaded unlicensed shotgun … [and] fired into the back of Fred Barras … which suggests he was running away.” (“International Papers” summarized the press’s response to the conviction in April 2000.) An appeals court later reduced the charge to manslaughter, and Martin served two-thirds of his five-year sentence—he was ineligible for earlier parole because he showed little remorse for his crime. During the high-profile trial and appeal—and even during his time in prison—Martin became a controversial symbol of the rights of homeowners to protect their property. (Although he had been burgled as many as 30 times, the police told Martin there was nothing they could do about the repeated break-ins.)
Politicians and rival newspapers complained that the Mirror’s payment to Martin—some papers suggested a fee of $162,500 (£100,000), others $203,000 (£125,000)—breached the Press Complaints Commission’s code of ethics, which bars newspapers from making payments to criminals, “except where the material concerned ought to be published in the public interest and payment is necessary for this to be done.” The Mirror’s editor, Piers Morgan, told the Guardian, “If Tony Martin’s story doesn’t fit that criteria, then I will pack my bag and emigrate to the Soviet Union where their press laws are arguably less draconian these days.” A Labor MP dismissed the public-interest defense: “The trouble is, by turning every criminal into a loveable rogue, newspapers are in danger of condoning a lawless society.” For some observers, the episode showed the weakness of the media watchdog; a media lawyer told the Independent it demonstrated “the level of contempt and disdain with which editors in Fleet Street hold the PCC. … Piers Morgan knows that he will put on significant circulation as a result of this, so whatever they do to him at the PCC … he will still be quids in.” According to the Times, even if the PCC were to find that the public interest did not justify paying for the story, it has no power to fine the Mirror, though it “could require the paper to print a critical adjudication in a prominent place.”
The Daily Telegraph pointed out one of the ironies of Martin’s situation: “Though he has always maintained that his overriding desire after more than three years in jail is to return home, his decision to sell his story means he is being kept miles away from the dilapidated, ivy-smothered farmhouse.” The Mirror seemed quite unself-conscious in its description of events: “[Martin] was released into the care of the Daily Mirror to which he had chosen to tell his remarkable story.” Perhaps wishing to distance itself from a convicted murderer, the Mirror portrayed Martin as a bit of a kook, rummaging through plastic bags and remarking of a beloved pet who died while he was in prison, “It was very upsetting to hear about Bruno, but someone did tell me his coat was in lovely condition when he died, which is comforting.” The Mirror splashed a peculiar photo of Martin in the middle of a cornfield across its Tuesday cover, with “I’M FREE” across the bottom in huge type. In an editorial headlined, “Why his story must be told,” the Mirror justified its actions:
Tony Martin went too far. But how far is too far? His case should lead to the law being made clear—though it is obvious it can never be legal to shoot dead an unarmed burglar. Then there is the issue of how he was treated. Martin did wrong—but only because his home was invaded. It was never suggested that he would have become a killer in any other circumstances. But he was dealt with as if he had been a cold-blooded murderer.
The Times counseled the newly released farmer to stay silent: “Martin should not seek to turn himself into a strange form of celebrity. … Those media outlets that have opened up their checkbooks should close them. Ministers might pause for further reflection before considering changing the law relating to self-defence simply in response to this bizarre high-profile controversy.”