Saturday, June 09, 2007

Journalistic failure in the Woolmer case

Mark Lawson makes the point that the early coverage of the Bob Woolmer case will live forever on the web as evidence of journalistic failure and historical untruths. And it's not just material published online.

"Should the BBC retract the edition of Panorama that stated authoritatively that Woolmer was poisoned, or simply pretend that the show was never broadcast?", he asks.

But the bigger problem is what he calls "a growing impatience with fact".

"These problems have occurred because of significant changes in both the speed and the durability of journalism."

It's still possible to find much of what was written about Bob Woolmer as a murder victim. There are interviews with an early "suspect" and reams of scandalous insinuation about the Pakistani players.

But how much old fashioned investigative research could have unearthed this mistake far sooner?

As the Sunday Times reported on June 3:
"Woolmer was found dead in his room at the Pegasus hotel in Kingston on March 18, the day after Pakistan lost to Ireland in the World Cup. There were traces of vomit but no bruises on his neck and no sign of a struggle.

"[Jamaican patholigist] Seshaiah said after his initial autopsy that the cause of death was inconclusive. When he reexamined the body, he decided Woolmer’s death was the result of “asphyxiation as a result of manual strangulation”, pointing to bruises in tissues of the neck.

"Despite the initial uncertainty, his findings were enough to convince police. [Investigating officer] Shields stated he was “100% certain” that Woolmer had been strangled to death.

"The police decided against carrying out a second postmortem, and sources close to the investigation later claimed “significant” levels of herbicide had been found in Woolmer’s body, suggesting he had been poisoned.

"It was only when the postmortem report and photos were examined by Dr Nat Carey, the British pathologist, that the investigation began to fall apart. Carey concluded it was more likely that the bruising in Woolmer’s neck was the result of the postmortem itself."
Last week I was at a dinner in Melbourne with the British pathologist Sir James Underwood who was visiting Australia on a lecture tour. According to Professor Underwood much of the general evidence that ultimately led to the conclusion Woolmer's death was not murder had been reported in the media. In other words, there were clues in the public domain that led experts to suspected problems with the murder conclusion well before Dr Carey was asked to report on the case.

Professor Underwood says it was evident in those first reports: "There were traces of vomit but no bruises on his neck and no sign of a struggle."

It seems that Woolmer had been on some medication - which would have been on his medical record - but despite this, subsequent confusion over the toxicology results of the autopsy can still be attributed to false positives that pathologists say are not uncommon post-mortem. A good pathologist would be on guard against those sorts of misleading clues.

It's easy to be judgemental given the scale of the stuff-up in the Woolmer case, but from a journalistic point of view you have to wonder why none of the news organisations reporting the story sought expert pathology advice? It was already being discussed amongst British pathologists, some of whom had doubts. They would presumably have been willing to air these about an international investigation.

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