Sunday 5 May 2013

"The case for restorative justice" - times three

'Restorative justice' - the process whereby the criminal and the victim are brought together by the authorities, with the criminal admitting their guilt, giving an apology and, sometimes, making reparation - is very much in favour at the moment. It is widely supported, by people ranging from coalition ministers to bishops. It has it critics, however - though I've rarely heard them making their case on the radio. 

Radio 4's Sunday discussed the issue this morning and Edward Stourton's introduction offered the tantalising prospect of hearing both sides of the argument over restorative justice:
There's been a row this week about what's known as 'restorative justice', the practice of bringing offenders face to face with their victims so that they understand the impact of their crimes. New figures show that the police are using so-called 'community resolution methods' in thousands of cases, from knife crime to domestic violence, and it's raised the question of whether some of them would be better prosecuted in court. Trevor Barnes reports on the history of restorative justice and how it works in practice. 
What was so surprising about Trevor's report, however, was that we didn't hear from both sides of the argument. We heard from only one side of the argument - the side that supports restorative justice.

I was rather taken aback to hear every single one of Trevor's five talking heads advancing the case in favour and not one of them advancing the case against. We heard from: Susannah Hancock, Assistant Chief Executive of Victim Support; Kimmett Edgar, Prison Reform Trust; Rev. Ruth Scott, an Anglican chaplain involved in restorative justice; James Jones, the Bishop of Liverpool; and victim Laura Stonehouse, who has benefited from restorative justice.

Yes, Trevor intermittently sketched out the nature of the debate during the course of his report, but never fleshed out any of the counter-arguments and never offered us a talking head from the other side of the debate. His report ended with the words of the Bishop of Liverpool saying "it's a worthwhile exercise to do."

Far from being merely a history of restorative justice or a report on how it works in practice, Trevor Barnes's report turned out to be little more than a sustained argument in favour of restorative justice.

As to how this fits in with the BBC's commitment to impartiality, where all important shades of opinion on a controversial issue are meant to be heard, I'm not at all sure.

Please take a listen for yourselves (it begins at 22:14).

Now, of course, the BBC's response would be that this was just one report on one edition of Sunday. If you listen to a programme over time it will be balanced out, they would probably reply. Strict impartiality within a single edition of a programme is neither necessary nor always desirable.

Well, having monitored Sunday since the start of 2011, I can confirm that this is the third time the programme has discussed the issue of restorative justice. Did the other two occasions give full voice to the other side of the argument? Was impartiality achieved over time?

Well, the last time it was discussed - on 1st January 2012 - the programme gave the self-same Bishop of Liverpool a platform to make the case for restorative justice. The Bishop was allowed to present his own report, arguing that the schemes are very effective indeed, and that we need to be more forgiving (like Jesus).

Like the BBC's Trevor Barnes, the Bishop of Liverpool's report was heavy on supporters of the scheme but, unlike the BBC's Trevor Barnes, the Bishop did allow one contrary talking head to appear in his report - namely Peter Hitchens of the Daily Mail. The Bishop did, however, argue with him and then editorialised about what they'd discussed after they'd spoken...which, all in all, would make him a great BBC reporter!!

So, that's two out of three of Sunday's features on restorative justice that have been strongly biased in support of restorative justice. What about the third?

That took place on 27th November 2011. Edward Stourton's introduction really says it all:
The case for restorative justice. A rape victim tells us how meeting her attacker helped her come to terms with what she went through.
The programme interviewed Joanne Nodding who has experienced the scheme and appreciates its work. It also interviewed Minister for Prisons, Crispin Blunt, who was leading the push for restorative justice. So, again, Sunday only offered its listeners the views of supporters of the scheme.

I'll let you judge from the questions Edward posed to Mr. Blunt whether the BBC's interviewer's line of questioning offered enough counter-balance:

Ed: "He told me what he understands by the term 'restorative justice'"
Ed: "To what extent do you see it as essentially a moral exercise, in the sense it's right the offender should make some sort of restitution, come face to face with the victim, and to what extent is it something that's useful in social terms?" 
Ed: "How much evidence is there..what evidence is there on the degree to which it stops people re-offending?"
Ed: "What does it do for victims, do you think?"
Ed: "Do you think that you could compel prisoners to take part?"
Ed: "And do you think it's appropriate for all types of crime?" 
Ed: "We interviewed a young woman who had confronted the man who raped her - a very brave thing to do - and she was a huge fan of the idea, but she made the point that she had spent eight months..they'd both spent eight months preparing for the meeting, which is a huge amount of resources, isn't it? There are a huge amount of resources involved in that. Is it practical to deploy it throughout the criminal justice system, giving the amount of resources it can consume?"
Ed: "Are you at all concerned about being accused of being soft on criminals by pursuing this agenda?" 
[note that Ed doesn't bother to make such a critical point himself]

I think it would be very hard to argue that Sunday has aired the debate over restorative justice in a fair and balanced fashioned. Not today, not in 2012 and not in 2011. Each of the three editions that have dealt with the issue have, in varying ways, been overwhelmingly tilted in favour of restorative justice.

Restorative justice may well be a wonderful thing. Whether it is or it isn't is not the issue here. The issue here is whether the impartial BBC is failing to be impartial. I think it clearly is here. 

We need to hear both sides of the argument to make an informed democratic judgement on a key development in criminal justice. We need a proper debate.

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