Pressure on PM over Howell murder drama

Lauren Bradford, Lesley Howell's daughter
Lauren Bradford, Lesley Howell's daughter

The Prime Minister has been pressed to ensure victims are not further traumatised by television dramas such as the one based on two Coleraine murder victims.

David Cameron said he will be meeting the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale to discuss the impact of the ITV dramatisation The Secret.

Currently being broadcast in four parts, The Secret tells the story of lovers Colin Howell and Hazel Buchanan (now Stewart) who murdered their spouses in 1991.

The pair had managed to keep the killings – deemed a double suicide at the time – a secret for almost two decades before Howell handed himself in to police in 2009.

They are currently serving life sentences for the murders, Howell a minimum 21-year term and Stewart a minimum of 18 years.

Lauren Bradford has been highly critical of the programme she says fails to capture her mother Lesley Howell’s “ambition and drive ... thoughtfulness and warmth”.

She added: “The reality of murder is devoid of eerie music or close-ups, just devastation and sorrow: first for the murders themselves, then for a justice process that strips them of control, and finally for the unnecessary sensationalisation of events in the aftermath.”

Now living in Sheffield, Ms Bradford contacted her local MP Louise Haigh for help in raising awareness of the trauma suffered by the victims.

Ms Bradford also wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian, saying its makers “trivialise the reality of these events and dehumanise the impact that it has on those involved”.

The Labour MP raised the matter in the House of Commons yesterday – saying families were suffering as a result of the programme.

Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme last night, Ms Haigh said: “I just think this is so emblematic of the way we treat victims in our society, and across our entire criminal justice system.”

Ms Haigh added: “I think it’s appalling the way the victims in this were left powerless.”

Mr Cameron said he would discuss the programme with Mr Whittingdale to see if there is anything “more that can be done” in similar cases.

Actor James Nesbitt plays Howell in the drama, based on a book by journalist Deric Henderson that details the murders and the years that followed.

In a statement, an ITV spokesperson said the scripts for the programme were based on an “exhaustively researched” book by a “highly respected journalist” and that extensive additional research had been carried out.

“We have never suggested that they (the families) approved or authorised the drama.

“We do believe that we have conducted the making and broadcast of this series responsibly, in seeking to minimise distress to family members, in so far as we were able to do so, given the subject matter.”

Ms Bradford also wrote an opinion piece in the Guardian, saying its makers “trivialise the reality of these events and dehumanise the impact that it has on those involved”.

Labour MP Ms Haigh raised the matter in the House of Commons yesterday – saying families were suffering as a result of the programme.

She added that “victims’ voices should have a far greater role” in determining whether or not programmes based on real-life events should be made.

Speaking on Radio Ulster’s Evening Extra programme last night, Ms Haigh said: “I just think this is so emblematic of the way we treat victims in our society, and across our entire criminal justice system.”

Ms Haigh added: “I think it’s appalling the way the victims in this were left powerless.”

Mr Cameron said he would discuss the programme with Mr Whittingdale to see if there is anything “more that can be done” in similar cases.

Actor James Nesbitt plays Howell in the drama, which is based on a book by journalist Deric Henderson that details the murders and the years that followed.

In a statement, an ITV spokesperson said the scripts for the programme were based on an “exhaustively researched” book by a “highly respected journalist” and that extensive additional research had been carried out.

“We have never suggested that they (the families) approved or authorised the drama.

“We do believe that we have conducted the making and broadcast of this series responsibly, in seeking to minimise distress to family members, in so far as we were able to do so, given the subject matter.

“ITV has a proud record of broadcasting award-winning factual dramas, based on or representing real events and people.

“These include Hillsborough, Bloody Sunday, The Murder of Stephen Lawrence, Appropriate Adult, Code of A Killer, The Widower, and The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies,” the spokesperson added.

ITV also said both Howell and Buchanan families were informed of the production and were invited to view it in advance of the public broadcast.