The Man Who Would Be “Cracker”

I’ve come down with a case of homoeapathy so in the words of Monty Python, now for something completely different.

The man of the title is psychologist Paul Britton who, it would appear, is the man who convinced the police they should go after Colin Stagg for the brutal murder of Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common in 1992. Frankly, the events of the case make me wonder if Britton had watched one too many episodes of “Cracker”, the TV series about a forensic psychologist, and had begun to confuse television fiction with reality.

I am not for one moment suggesting that forensic psychology is a “woo” subject, just that Britton’s application of it had crossed the line. Forensic psychology was invented by the FBI and proved to be a useful tool in tracking down serial killers by means of the creation of a psychological profile which helps invesigators narrow down the number of suspects. When they think they have their man, though, American investigators still look for physical evidence linking him to the crime. Britton’s application of the technique was somewhat different. As I understand it, the events unfolded as follows:

Colin Stagg wrote a letter in reply to an ad in a Lonely Hearts magazine. The woman receiving it thought that Stagg sounded a little iffy and took the letter to the police. The police advised her that the letter committed no offense but it would appear that they still retained it because it ended up in the hands of the team investigating Rachel Nickell’s murder.

Paul Britton was advising the police on the case and constructed an offender profile. It would appear that he expressed the view that Colin Stagg could fit the profile. So far, so orthodox, and if all that subsequently happenned was that police questioned Stagg and looked for physical evidence linking him to the murder I don’t think they could be faulted.

In fact, the police decided to set up a honey-trap. They got a policewoman, “Lizzie James”, to contact Stagg claiming to be a friend of the woman who had placed the lonely hearts ad. “James” told him that although Stagg did not appeal to the advertiser, he did to her. She tried but failed to get him to admit to being the killer.

Lacking any other suspect (had they been looking?) the police decided to arrest and charge Stagg anyway and to present the offender profile, plus things he had allegedly said that could be used to make him fit the profile, as evidence. Essentially, their case amounted to “He’s a wrong un, we can tell just by looking at him”. Unsurprisingly (except to the police and the tabloid press) the judge threw the case out.

The gutter journalists then proceeded to show what a lovely bunch they are by labelling Stagg as “the man who got away with murder”, making him an outcast from society and totally unemployable. Amongst other claims, they alleged that he was into black magic. In fact, according to journalist Ted Hynds (who is co-author of “Pariah”, Stagg’s account of the case), the books on his shelves are actually on Celtic mythology and early English history. I don’t know how the confusion as to their nature arose. It could be that the gutter journalists are too pig ignorant to know the difference between history, mythology and magic. Or it could be middle-class prejudice against a working-class man who dares to have intellectual interests.

“Lizzie James”, incidently, left the police in 1998 on health grounds. In 2001 the Metropolitan Police paid her £125,000 in an out-of-court settlement of her claims of psychiatric injury. Given that she almost certainly honestly believed she had been sent to date a psychotic sex killer there is merit in her claim. But what compensation has Colin Stagg received for having his life destroyed? Contrary to what you might read in the gutter press, the answer is nothing, zilch and half of sod all. 

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14 Responses to “The Man Who Would Be “Cracker””

  1. jdc325 Says:

    Good post, JQH. I think there are echoes of this in other police incidents such as those the Kalam brothers were caught up in and the way the tabloids have reported these incidents.

  2. dvnutrix Says:

    Stagg’s story and his subsequent treatment are frightening.

    You might be interested in Gladwell’s account of forensic profiling of Dangerous Minds.

    A few years ago, Alison went back to the case of the teacher who was murdered on the roof of her building in the Bronx. He wanted to know why, if the F.B.I.’s approach to criminal profiling was based on such simplistic psychology, it continues to have such a sterling reputation. The answer, he suspected, lay in the way the profiles were written, and, sure enough, when he broke down the rooftop-killer analysis, sentence by sentence, he found that it was so full of unverifiable and contradictory and ambiguous language that it could support virtually any interpretation.

    Astrologers and psychics have known these tricks for years. The magician Ian Rowland, in his classic “The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading,” itemizes them one by one, in what could easily serve as a manual for the beginner profiler. First is the Rainbow Ruse—the “statement which credits the client with both a personality trait and its opposite.” (“I would say that on the whole you can be rather a quiet, self effacing type, but when the circumstances are right, you can be quite the life and soul of the party if the mood strikes you.”)

  3. James Barlow Says:

    Malcolm Gladwell (author of Blink) recently wrote an article for New Yorker magazine which strongly suggests the entire discipline of forensic psychology is just cold reading by another name.

  4. woodchopper Says:

    “I don’t know how the confusion as to their nature arose. It could be that the gutter journalists are too pig ignorant to know the difference between history, mythology and magic. Or it could be middle-class prejudice against a working-class man who dares to have intellectual interests.”

    Or the journalists decided to invent a black magic story to spice up that morning’s news.

    PS – great post.

  5. xyzzy Says:

    Actually, a well-argued article in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago suggested it precisely WAS cold-reading woo. See

  6. jay Says:

    Before you get too apologetic about calling profiling ‘woo’, very interesting article about how unscientific theis process is.

  7. jaycueaitch Says:

    I have serious concerns about the way the press comment and speculate on cases before they ever come to court. Very difficult for the accused in a high profile case to get a fair trial.

  8. Dudley Says:

    If I remember a decade-old TV profile correctly, Paul Britton claimed to be the actual model for Cracker’s technique, and I think Jimmy McGovern confirmed this.

  9. jaycueaitch Says:

    Since Fitz’s techinique seemed to include boozing, smoking, compulsive gambling and shagging his colleagues I’m not sure this is something Britton should be boasting about.

  10. Dudley Says:

    I dunno – a man’s got to have some hobbies….

  11. TomL Says:

    I enjoyed the post, and agree that the treatment of Stagg by both police and press was terrible. I’m going to enjoy reading Gladwell’s article too. Can I just make one pedantic plea; those criticisms should be directed at a particular form of offender profiling, and not forensic psychology in general. Forensic psychologists assess and provide psychological therapies for all sorts of mentally disordered offenders in hospitals and prisons – not woo. It sounds like it’s offender profiling that is giving them a bad name, and my belief was that the science of that had moved on anyway, and in to more evidence-based but less televisually exciting areas such as geographic profiling.

  12. beachlover Says:

    Yes I agree,
    Profiling can be so simple that any amateur in hocus pocus with any amount of intelligence could do a profile.
    What is more worrying is that any serial nutcase with a penchant for reading the academic papers could easily outwit these psychic nutters.
    For example take the case of repressed memories for early sexual abuse cases. Some clever freudian clinical therapist sussed out they could make some money if they induced into their patients the idea that all their problems were due to some sort of childhood sexual abuse. Conveniently of course the patent had forgotten all this sexual abuse as it happened when they were two years old before the neurons could form memories….and the only person to have access to these repressed memories was the therapist.
    Classic I wish I had thought of it myself!!

  13. Dr* T Says:

    Great post JQH.

    One point though – according to the BBC website here

    “Mr Stagg, 45, spent 13 months in custody. This year, he was awarded £706,000 compensation from the Home Office.”

    Your last line suggests this isn’t true – is there other information elsewere?

  14. jaycueaitch Says:

    I wrote the OP in December last year. At that time Stagg had received nothing. Glad to see he has finally been compensated.

    Although I read somehere that a certain editor who published so much crap about Stagg has an annual salary greater than Stagg’s compensation for having his life destroyed. tanj.

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