Four years ago, T.R. Reid, who was at the time the London bureau chief of the Washington Post, came to visit American politics students at Sussex University. His speech puzzled many people in the audience because he spent a lot of time complaining about how restricted the British conception of a free press is compared to the United States.
But it actually made a lot of sense: To American journalists, the level of routine secrecy in British government is bizarre. Even more bizzare, though, is how accepting most British hacks are of the status quo.
Perhaps it takes an American ex-pat journalist to speak up on these issues. Heather Brooke has been going a good job of this, advocating the new Freedom of Information laws in a book and blog. But open government is about much more than just the ability to demand data from government departments using FOIA.
…the information lockdown operating at all times, not just during the present crisis, among the police and judiciary, makes a mockery of open justice. It is no surprise that we know more about the Italian bombing suspect than any other part of the terrorist investigation. Or that the American public was the first to see photographs of the bombed tube carriages. These countries are free from such stifling Contempt of Court laws.
The problem here lies in our judicial system’s unrealistic expectations. Many judges seem to inhabit a fantasyland where they believe everyone who comes to trial does so without a reputation and jurors’ minds must be an absolute blank. This is justice by myth and the danger of being so out of step with society is that collective justice will cease to satisfy individual desire for retribution. A more pragmatic approach is needed that understands and respects the public’s interest in seeing justice done.
The contempt of court laws prohibit the publication of any information that could be judged to seriously impede or prejudice judicial proceedings while those proceedings are active. They also prevent publication of a suspect’s background or previous convictions. This gag on freedom of expression is bad for many reasons. It assumes that juries (and by default the public) are incapable of rational thought once exposed to the media. Such a patronizing elitist attitude is clear when you consider that this type of contempt only refers to trial by jury: a judge is deemed sufficiently intelligent to discount media coverage.
She’s right. She’s also right to criticise Liberty’s strange stance on this issue. It’s hard to imagine its American equivalent, the ACLU, calling for the press to keep schtum.