In the Guardian, Andrew Neil today became the second media commentator to condemn Liberty’s strange defense of Britain’ contempt of court law, which in the last few weeks has had the effect of gagging the British media’s reporting of the investigation into the London bombings.
… an unholy alliance of the civil-liberties industry and the burgeoning human-rights branch of the legal profession that seems keen to champion everybody’s freedom — except that of the press. When supposedly freedom-loving folk want Lord Goldsmith to determine what we can read, you begin to appreciate how wafer-thin press freedom is in this country. True libertarians would be calling for an end to Britain’s anachronistic sub judice rules — rather than their strict application by his lordship.
The idea that a jury risks contamination and that jurors will not be able to come to a fair verdict because they have read some (possibly warped) report about the case or the accused hails from a bygone age when the ruling elite thought juries could not be trusted to come to the “right” verdict unless closely protected and guided by the legal establishment. In this more democratic age it is surely time to start treating jurors as adults equipped to sift through the evidence.
In the United States, sub judice fought a losing battle in the 20th century with the first amendment to the constitution, which guarantees freedom of the press. Whenever US judges were asked to choose between sub judice and the first amendment, they tended in general to side with the newspapers’ right to print whatever they thought fit for publication. But then US judges, unlike their British counterparts, have an admirable record in defending press freedom.
A few things need to be added here, though. Like it or not, the often-meek American press has used its greater feedom with more care than British papers, particularly the tabloids.
After the arrests last week, some tabloids conveniently forgot the presumption of innocence, with the Sun screamed “Got the Bastards” on the front page, and the Express splashing “”Brave police catch ALL the suicide bombers”.
I can’t quite imagine an American publication running a headline like that.
The Guardian has a good media section today. Also worth reading are Roy Greenslade on the citizen photojournalist services Flickr and Scoopt and Jeff Jarvis’s advice to old media for coping with the Internet.