The TV News Program’s Key Mistake

On March 20, 2000, Zahid Mubarek was a British Pakistani 19-year-old inmate at Feltham Young Offenders Institution, a prison for juveniles in London. He was a day away from being released at the end of a 90-day sentence — he had broken into some cars to help pay for his drug addiction — but he’d never be free. Before dawn on March 21st, his cellmate, an avowed racist with an alleged history of violence, murdered Mubarek in his sleep. The murderer was later convicted of this crime and is now serving life in prison, but the story captured the media’s attention. 

And in 2007, the British government sued a television channel for their coverage of the story. But not in hopes of censoring the story.

Mubarek’s murder was a national scandal from the start, and as more details came to light, the scandal only grew. Mubarek, as noted above, was on the verge of release; keeping him safe from other inmates should have been trivial. His family, friends, and the larger British Pakistani community believed that bunking him with a violent racist appeared to be an avoidable mistake, one underscored perhaps by structural racism within the prison system. It took a few years, but the British government ultimately decided that reform was needed. In 2004, Home Secretary (roughly the equivalent of the Attorney General in the United States) David Blunkett ordered an investigation into Mubarek’s death; the resulting 500+ page report (pdf here) makes a number of recommendations in that regard.

The report, released in June 2006, sparked new interest in the story. In anticipation of the report’s release, the government invited journalists to Feltham Prison, as you’d probably expect. Among those invited was a news crew from British television station ITV, and, as you’d also expect, they had video cameras with them. They took lots of video footage, edited together a story, and aired it when the report came out.

The next day, Feltham Prison had a problem — one that cost them hundreds of thousands of pounds. As the Guardian reported, ITV “broadcast shots of a prison key” — a big no-no when it comes to prison security. Per the BBC, “experts said skilled locksmiths can make duplicate keys from detailed source material such as a close-up picture,” and that’s exactly what ITV had just provided. While the depicted key wouldn’t open all of the locks, it didn’t matter; officials had no way of knowing what locks were now compromised. Approximately 11,000 locks and 3,200 keys needed to be replaced. And to make matters worse, it had to be done quickly, leading to a lot of overtime pay. In total, the bill came to nearly £300,000 — or about $360,000.

The government argued that ITV should have to pick up that bill. Per the above-linked Guardian article, the risk of a key being shown on TV was already a known one: “prison officials warn reporters, photographers and camera operators that their company will be liable for the cost of a ‘re-lock’ if they publish or broadcast images which show keys or locks.” And in 2007, the government sued ITV for reimbursement in the amount of £298,595. According to the Evening Standard, ITV offered to settle for £10,000, but the two sides couldn’t come to a compromise. The outcome of the case was not reported.

Bonus fact: If you’re in a highrise building and a fire breaks out, firefighters need a way to get to you quickly. The easy solution: most elevators have a special keyhole that lets firefighters take control of the elevator and take an express trip to the floor you’re on. But in a place with a lot of elevators, doesn’t that mean that firefighters need to have a lot of different keys? Nope: most areas standardize their elevator keys — firefighters have one key that will let them commandeer virtually any elevator in their area. As a result, there are a lot of black-market elevator keys out there; in 2015, for example, the New York Post ran an (unnecessarily alarmist) article noting that virtually anyone can get an NYC elevator key for about $8.

From the Archives: Lock Bumping: Picking a lock may be easier than you think.