Four years ago Tony Martin killed a boy. Infuriated by a string of burglaries at his remote Norfolk, England, property, the 58-year-old farmer fired three shotgun blasts at two fleeing intruders who had broken into his home. He killed 16-year-old Fred Barras and wounded 33-year-old Brendan Fearon. Martin was first sentenced to life for murder, which triggered a wave of public sympathy in many quarters for a man who apparently was goaded to a criminal act to protect his home. The murder sentence was then commuted to five years for manslaughter, and last week Martin was released after serving three years of it. He made headlines again, but this time because he sold his story, reportedly for $200,000, to the tabloid Daily Mirror. Britain's problem with checkbook journalism was back in the line of fire.
Britain's press is self-regulated, with a Press Complaints Commission (P.C.C.) that administers a code of practice drawn up by editors and administered by a 16-member board. By paying Martin for his story, the Mirror had flouted the P.C.C.'s voluntary ban on paying convicted criminals for their tales unless those tales could be proved to be in the "public interest." Mirror editor Piers Morgan's defense: Martin had come to stand for "a crucial part of the debate about law and order in this country, and it would be not just foolish but also dangerous to ignore it." But Labour M.P. Chris Bryant, a member of the Commons media select committee, accused the newspaper of "condoning a lawless society," contending that newspapers were "turning every criminal into a lovable rogue." Even Roy Greenslade, one of Morgan's predecessors as Mirror editor, attacked the move as an indication that the paper believes "sales are more important than ethics." The P.C.C. announced it would investigate; its previous rulings on the subject have been less than coherent. It censured the Guardian broadsheet after it paid a criminal to write an account of doing time with peer Jeffrey Archer, but cleared the News of the World over its payment to a convicted conman for information about a putative plot to kidnap Victoria Beckham.
Then there's the case of British TV presenter John Leslie. He was cleared last week of indecent-assault charges stemming from an investigation that began after TV personality Ulrika Jonsson claimed to have been raped by a TV presenter 15 years earlier. She didn't finger Leslie, but his name slipped out and other women went to the tabloids with similar allegations. Eventually Leslie was charged with two indecent assaults in 1997, but the charges were ultimately dropped. Leslie lost his job when the allegations surfaced, but last week he agreed to a deal with the Daily Express group to tell his story for a reported $880,000. There was no outcry about this payment, for Leslie wasn't a convicted criminal and checkbook journalism has become a way of life in Britain. But then many believe Martin wasn't a criminal either. "Martin was desperate," says the reclusive farmer's M.P., Henry Bellingham. "The intruders were in the house and he didn't know if they were armed."
Brendan Fearon, whom Martin wounded in the leg, was released from prison just days before Martin. Fearon was given a discharge after serving just six of his most recent 18-month sentence for dealing heroin. Martin was refused early parole on the grounds that he had not shown remorse for what he had done and could be a danger to society. Fearon had some 34 convictions when he drove 90 km to rob Martin, but a judge gave him permission in June to use tax-funded legal aid to sue Martin for $24,000 because the gunshot wounds had affected his sex life, earning ability and enjoyment of martial arts.
Police have installed a mobile unit and security lights at Martin's dilapidated farm, Bleak House, in reponse to rumors his life is in danger from those seeking revenge for Barras' death. And Home Secretary David Blunkett said he would look at legislation to ban burglars from suing their victims. The world has gone "quite, quite mad," Martin said on his release. For the tabloids, mad is good for business.