Category Archives: Journalism


Crunching Data: The School Holiday Fines

A couple of weeks ago my piece of work on school holiday and truancy penalties was broadcast across telly, the wireless and t’internet.

The online story got a humbling 1.2million views and it went out across various national and network stations as well as being followed up by various national newspapers.

I thought I’d share a couple of observations about doing these large scale data pieces. The first involves getting the data in the first place. Although the Government collates and publishes data on parental sanctions for non-attendance, it does not (until this year) break it down into how many penalties are for truancy and how many are for unauthorised term-time holidays.

Probably for that very reason, many local authorities were unable to supply that break down when asked under the Freedom of Information Act (from which my data was built). I am very grateful to those councils which did break it down, as it allowed us a decent glimpse into what absences parents were being fined for. What it revealed was that although the lion’s share of penalties were issued for term time holidays (c61,000 compared with c15,000 for truancy), it also emerged that the number of truancy fines had risen sharply in three years (from about 9,000 to about 15,000).

In terms of the data, we focused on the comparative fining rates (rates per 1,000 pupils) because a simple number of fines by county figure was unlikely to offer much illumination (bigger county populations tend to equal bigger numbers of fines).

For the news website, an interactive map using the data was produced using DB Carto

For the news website, an interactive map using the data was produced using DB Carto

Anybody wanting the raw data to have a play is welcome to it. Visit the BBC England Data Unit page here.

One of the key issues I tend to find with data-led stories is their tendency towards dryness (I’m as guilty as anybody of this in the past).

Enter stage left, David Brain, the father from Bristol who spoke to me about why he was fined last year and how he would happily take another financial hit in the future, if it meant he could take his children away on a good holiday.

I also wondered whether the decision by the Isle of Wight Council, which issues penalties at a higher rate than any other authority, to change its holiday dates might in the future be followed by other councils – particularly those in areas heavily dependent on the tourism economy.

Journalism, People, Places, Stories

Dead Ends: Life and work in the shadows of unsolved murders

Loose ends make a fertile breeding ground for rumour, suspicion and fear. And few loose ends linger in quite the same way as an unsolved murder. But what is it like to live and work in and around the scenes of unresolved horrors?

The case files of more than 1,400 murders currently linger unsolved upon the shelves of England’s police stations – their pages a chronicle of human endings in which the modes of killing – blunt force trauma, shooting, stabbing, strangulation – are stuck on grim repeat.

The oldest case dates back more than 100 years to 1905 and span every decade since.

Each killing wreaks immediate devastation on the families and friends of victims.

But these unsolved murders also leave more subtle psychological legacies upon the communities in which they take place, occasionally etched so deeply into the communal memory that they can come to define a place.


Denis Byrne

Denis Byrne

Within seconds of setting up the tripod, a man appears and asks protectively, though politely: “What are you doing here?”

You explain you are taking a picture of 98 Greswolde Road in Birmingham’s Sparkhill area, the former corner shop building where pensioner sisters Alice and Edna Rowley were found murdered 30 years ago.

Their killer stole just two boxes of chocolates, a bottle of Tia Maria and a radio cassette player.

“Ah yes, Edna and Alice” says Lloyd Archer, the man asking. “Terrible.”

He beckons over a second man – Denis Byrne – who is out walking his diminutive, three-legged, dog.

It might seem peculiar, but these two men not only know about the killing, they also know what others in the street know about the murders.

This network of knowledge, refined and agreed over many years through myriad neighbourly conversations, spans suspected culprits, theories as to what happened and knowledge of the sisters and their murder.

They were two old ladies who never interfered with anybody, kept themselves to themselves. Denis Byrne

“There was a terrible feeling locally here,” says Mr Byrne, who lives opposite the corner shop. “They were two old ladies who never interfered with anybody, kept themselves to themselves.”

He tells of the ‘ha’penny jars of toffees’ and how they would sometimes treat children to a few freebies if they didn’t have enough money.

Eight years after the murders, the building was bought by Ahmed Khan and became an Islamic cultural and education centre. Mr Khan, who is also chairman of the centre, said he was fully aware of the killings when he bought the property.

He believes whoever killed the sisters – and he has his suspicions – was now dead. In the network of knowledge about the killings, some in the street defer to Thelbert Alleyne who, having moved in opposite the shop 63 years ago, is one of the area’s most established residents.

98 Greswolde Road, Birmingham

98 Greswolde Road, Birmingham

The day after the murders, his son Frank was stopped by police on his way back to the family home for Christmas.

It was there, in the middle of the street, that Frank learned the two old “lovely ladies” (whose chin whiskers had intrigued and fascinated the area’s younger residents) had been murdered, “It (the shop) is part of my childhood and memories,” he said.

“If you had five or 10 pence you’d pop over to Rowley’s for sweets, and if you didn’t have enough they’d always let you have something.

“You’d go in through the door and see into the back, they’d be in the back area and would come through and serve you when they heard the bell.”

“In those days it was a very close community,” he says. “Everyone on this street, everything on this street, was known to everyone.”

He raises his head and beams a knowing smile at the suggestion this still seems to be the case.



The Successor

Shortly after midnight on 8 September 1963, pub landlord and former miner George Wilson took his dog out for a walk.

Just 20 minutes later, his wife Betty found him outside their Nottingham pub with horrific stab wounds to his face, neck, head and back.

Mr Wilson died at the scene.

His death – which came to be known as the Pretty Windows murder (because of the attractive glasswork at Mr Wilson’s Fox and Grapes pub) shocked the city and triggered one of the biggest manhunts ever carried out by Nottinghamshire Police.

A few months ago the pub – whose name changed to Peggars after the murder – re-opened under its original name: the Fox and Grapes.

Danylo Semak

Danylo Semak

The new manager is Danylo Semak, born and raised in Nottingham.

“I thought I would be asked about it,” he said. “Some people have asked me whether I am feeling lucky.

“But in general people do not talk about the murder quite as much as I thought they would.

“It happened and we understand it happened, but as far as I am concerned it was many years before I was born.

“That is one thing we have tried to do – be sensitive towards it and acknowledge it but not sensationalise it in any way.”

The urban landscape surrounding the pub is shifting. What was, in Mr Wilson’s day, an enormous wholesalers’ market, is now being re-imagined as the city’s ‘Creative Quarter’, an incubator a new breed of independent businesses.

But the process is incomplete. New artisan shops and coffee houses sit within a stone’s throw of terraced rows of derelict red brick units. This flux exists not just in the bricks and mortar but in the community’s collective memory of the Pretty Windows Murder.

Fox and Grapes

Fox and Grapes

Step into the offices of those directing the Creative Quarter initiative and the chief executive officer Stephen Barker will explain how the murder is rarely mentioned partly, he says, because of many years of incomers into the city post-1963.

But linger for 10 minutes in that same office, and people’s memories, questions and stories about the murder start to seep out: theories as to motive; whether the killer knew Mr Wilson’s dog walking routine; whether it was a targeted murder.

Just one of the original ‘pretty windows’ from the Fox and Grapes remains – preserved within a wooden frame inside the pub.

No plaque proclaims its presence. But those for whom this ‘pretty window’ matters – or to those curious enough to ask about it – know it is there, rather like the unsolved murder that bears its name.



A Mother

Carol Young

Carol Young

As the crow flies, the mother of Johanna Young lives less than a mile from the water-filled pit in which her 14-year-old daughter’s body was found on Boxing Day in 1992.

Yet in the 25 years since the killing Carol Young has never visited the scene in Griston Road, in the small Norfolk town of Watton.

“I have never felt the need to,” she says.

Most of the time it is fairly quiet. But then there is a piece in the newspaper about it, or a fresh appeal, and then people will talk to me about it, saying things like they wish us luck or hope the police find something this time Carol Young

Johanna’s parents last saw her on the cold and foggy evening of 23 December.

Two days later the teenager’s shoes were discovered in undergrowth by a dog walker. Soon after her body was found nearby.

Johanna was lying face down in water with her lower clothing removed. The cause of death was drowning and a fractured skull.

Her killer or killers – Mrs Young believes more than one person was involved – have never faced justice.

Remaining in the place where a daughter had been murdered might have been too much to bear for some families.

The Youngs have stayed put, Mrs Young says, in part to look after her mother but also because Watton is their home.

Griston Road, Watton

Griston Road, Watton

“Some people speak to me about it, some people don’t,” says Mrs Young. “I don’t really mind either way.

“Most of the time it is fairly quiet. But then there is a piece in the newspaper about it, or a fresh appeal, and then people will talk to me about it, saying things like they wish us luck or hope the police find something this time.”

The Youngs remain haunted by the many unanswered questions.

“She was still alive when she was dumped in the water,” says Mrs Young.

“They should have sought help or at the very least just left her. She might still have died but maybe not.

“It is with you all the time – why did they dump her in the pond? Who did it? Why? Were they alone?”

The poster

The poster

The Youngs know their daughter’s killer is not only still at large, but is probably nearby.

“You do wonder if the person you just passed in the street was the killer.”



The ‘old guard’

Edna Harvey, who lived alone in a ground-floor flat in the horseshoe-shaped Finchley Road in Ipswich, was not well known to most of her neighbours.

This was not because the 87-year-old was in any way anti-social, but because she was nearly blind and extremely frail and rarely ventured beyond the confines of her flat.

That frailty, and the fact Edna lived a simple life with meagre possessions, made the brutality of her murder in August 1984 all the more shocking.

Edna’s killer or killers strangled her before setting her alight on her mattress.

Molly Adams

Molly Adams holding a photograph of the street party the community once enjoyed

More than 30 years on, Frank Culham remembers the murder vividly.

“The police were going around knocking on all the doors asking whether anybody had seen anything.

“It was so very sad. Back then it was so nice and quiet here. Things altered.”

This used to be a really strong community Molly Adams

Memories of Edna are vanishing fast, but unlike with the Pretty Windows murder, or the killing of the Rowley sisters, it seems the story of her death is not being passed on to newcomers.

The reason, according to the street’s self-proclaimed “old guard”, is that the sense of community they once enjoyed has long been shattered.

Edna’s death and the suspicions it aroused are felt to have played a role in the dissipation of that social cohesion.

Molly and Michael Adams, who live a few doors down from Mr Culham, moved into Finchley Road more than 50 years ago.

Back then, they say, neighbours would sit out in their front yards sharing their news and views.

The view down Finchley Road in Ipswich

The view down Finchley Road in Ipswich

“We do still think about her,” says Mrs Adams.

“Whenever there is an unsolved case on television or in the paper, we wonder what happened to her and who could have done such a thing – she didn’t have much and she could barely see.

“This used to be a really strong community. In 1977 the whole street organised a party and we had the whole road closed off. On New Year’s Eve we would get together and do the conga in the street. We’ve drifted apart, things have changed.

“We knew about Edna from Sylvie, who was her carer. Sylvie has since died, as have quite a few other people who remembered the case.

“There are not many of us left who remember what happened.”


This piece was published on the BBC news website on 20.1.18

Articles, Journalism, People

The public costs of bird control

A few months back I was leaving an inquest and noticed some guys putting up netting around a council building. They told me it was to stop pigeons roosting on the top and defecating downwards onto people like me.

“But once you’ve done this job,” I asked, “won’t the pigeons just move over there?”

“Yes,” was the response.

Followed by an admission of blatant opportunism (or business nous). “And when we’ve finished here, we’ll drop off our card at the businesses over there.”

This made me wonder just how much public money was being spent on bird control. Nobody really seemed to know. So I sent out Freedom of Information requests to every council in the UK. Three months later, I was surprised at the lack of responses I had received back and the number of authorities which said they had no idea how much they did or did not spend on pigeons (it seems to depend on accounting codes and so on).

So, in the piece I did for the BBC, (followed up by the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail as well as local papers and radio) I was keen simply to posit the information supplied by those authorities which provided a transparent and detailed account of their spending (as opposed to criticising them as some have done since).

The total amount spent over the past three years was about £3.5m. I suspect the true figure is a good deal more (not least because a number of London councils were amongst those which failed to respond). One of the patterns which did emerge was the amount being spent had doubled over the past three years. To be honest, I do not know how significant this actually is.

In hindsight, I probably should have asked for the spending over the last 10 years. It may have led to even fewer local authorities responding, but I may at least have been able to factor in the post 2008 austerity measures which have hugely affected councils. It may well be the case that councils were spending far more 10 years ago than they are now and that what we are seeing is a return to normal rather than an apparent massive increase.

Possibly. One of the pleasures of this project has been getting to speak with a large number of pest controllers who I’ve enjoyed learning from and debating all manner of issues with. One theme all of the pest controllers have mentioned is that business is good at the moment. Councils – and other clients – are moving away from lethal forms of bird control to gentler, disruptive forms. This, they say, costs more, which may also explain the possible rise.

So my piece on Friday was more of a first stab at an issue rather than anything definitive. It also looked only at council spending and not the money spent by the many other public sector organisations – hospitals, police stations or, erm, the BBC. Nor does it address the issue of potential multiple spends – the potential chain of expenditure moving on the same group of birds from one public building to the next, to the next and so on. Establishing that might be impossible, but it might be worth a try…