The London region of the new citizen journalism site Newsvine, which is currently private beta, is looking pretty sparce at the moment. Any British bloggers interested in a free invite to Newsvine please make yourselves known. My e-mail address available to your right.
Download a London tube map for your iPod while you still can.
It wouldn’t surprise me if London Underground does something similar. Government copyright issues are much less liberal in Britain than they are in the United States, and wouldn’t surprise me if Transport for London will want to remind the site of the recently-introduced Re-Use of Public Sector Information Regulations.
The current issue of the Press Gazette has a response by the BBC to a rival journalist’s allegation that it is in danger of prejudicing the would-be suicide bombers’s trial by continuting to use the CCTV images of the suspects, contrary to police pleas to discontinue their publication.
BBC home news editor Jon Williams writes,
Presumably Nick Pollard thinks the publisher of these pages is also mad — Press Gazette used the same pictures of Muktar Said Ibrahim, Ramzi Mohammed and Yassin Hassan-Omar to illustrate its front page story. So too did ITV News in its report of the court case. The truth, of course, is that none of us are mad — or bad.
For two weeks, the pictures of the three men, along with the fourth suspect arrested in Rome, had been on the front pages of newspapers in the UK and around the world, to say nothing of the thousands of leaflets distributed on the public transport network. For a fortnight, the CCTV images had rarely been off our TV screens, the suspects had become some of the most familiar faces in Britain. On the day they appeared in court, they were pictured on “wanted” posters in dozens of tube stations.
So when the Metropolitan Police asked the BBC and other media organisations to stop showing these images, we were faced with the likelihood of viewers of the 10 O’clock News returning home from work having seen the faces of the suspects on tube trains, in station concourses, and in the windows of hundreds of shops, but not on their television.
There was no logic to the request. Far from “defying” the Metropolitan Police, we spoke to senior officials at New Scotland Yard and to the Crown Prosecution Service before broadcasting the pictures. Neither had any “strong” objection.
Quite right. But Williams forgets to mention one other organisation that Pollard must think is “mad” for publishing the photos online — the Home Office.
If this becomes a real contempt issue rather than some shoproom jousting among hacks, perhaps Attorney General Lord Goldsmith will need to remind Charles Clarke of the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
American newspapers are waking up to the fact that the Contempt of Court Act is effectivly gagging the British media’s reporting of the investigations into suspected would-be suicide bombers.
Here’s a story by Mary Jacoby of the Wall Street Journal about why the story has all but disappeared from British newstands after the saturation coverage of a few weeks ago:
The change wasn’t due to lack of interest in one of the world’s most competitive media markets. Rather, as soon as the suspects appeared in court on Monday, charged with conspiracy to murder and other crimes, the news media are prohibited by British law from reporting information that might prevent their fair trials. That means until their trials begin in a year or more, virtually nothing about them can appear in London’s 12 daily newspapers and other media beyond such basic facts as their names, ages and the charges against them.
The legal restrictions are designed to ensure potential jurors don’t read, watch or hear any reports that might influence their view of a case. Defense lawyers and the government say such measures are especially important because Britain’s newspapers are notoriously intrusive and aggressive but often inaccurate and sensationalistic. “Got the bastards” read the page-one headline of the big-circulation Sun tabloid the day after the final arrests took place.
The media rules, however, are posing increasing problems. The proliferation of the Internet and other alternative media is limiting the British government’s ability to restrict information since Britons can read online coverage by foreign newspapers and independent bloggers. In theory, foreign news media are subject to the same restrictions on print editions that are sold on British newsstands and on their Web sites, which can be read in the U.K. But no foreign news outlet has ever been prosecuted under the law. “In general, the English papers are perceived to be the papers that will be read by potential jurors,&Rdquo; said Paul Gilbert, a media-law expert at Finers, Stephens, Innocent LLP in London.
In terror investigations that tend to drag on for years, some politicians and lawyers complain that the media blackout leaves the British public in the dark about alleged terrorist networks, contributing to a false sense of security and making it difficult for politicians like Prime Minister Tony Blair to argue for more forceful action against potential security threats.
Already, U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith warned the press, in email messages to news organizations and their lawyers, that he would “have no hesitation in taking appropriate action” against media outlets whose coverage he deemed to jeopardize a fair trial. Lord Goldsmith, as well as the judge presiding over a trial, may accuse journalists of violating the ban, and the charge is then tried either in the same court or another court. The maximum punishment is two years in prison and an unlimited fine.
Several British journalists contacted for this article declined to comment, saying they feared that even general remarks could get them in trouble with the courts.
Press restrictions continue even after a trial has begun in Britain. The news media may report only what is said before the jury. Information gleaned from outside conversations with lawyers and other sources is blocked by law. Only after the trials of everyone accused in a crime have been completed can the news media fully report on a case.
CBS news correspondent Richard Roth has a similar view:
… a major reason why information tends to flow freer in the U.S. than in the U.K. lies in the law.
Despite their shared foundation in common law, there are sharply divergent views and practice in America and Britain on what the public is entitled to know about crimes, criminals and the justice system; in particular, where the line gets drawn between a defendant’s right to a fair trial — and the public’s right to know.
At the extreme, media free-for-alls that surrounded the prosecutions of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson have been seen here as illustrations of the U.S. system gone awry. When evidence and legal strategy are topics for comment outside the courtroom; when lawyers and witnesses talk to the press; and when reporters write about all this in detail, commenting on the strength of the case and even speculating on the jury’s demeanor – the British have always argued that justice suffers.
In Britain, under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, newspapers and broadcasters can be prosecuted for publishing anything that might “create a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”
In practice, once an arrest warrant has been issued, the law amounts to a gag order on the press. In trial coverage here, the cue to the reader or listener that a reporter is operating under restrictions comes at the end of the story, with the words, “the case continues.”
In effect, that means, “I know a lot more about what’s going on here, what the evidence really shows, what the lawyers are trying to establish, what the defendant’s alibi will be — but I can’t share it with you until it comes out in testimony or the trial’s over.&Rdquo;
The idea is to ensure that jurors will be able to hear and evaluate the evidence free of any outside interference; that only what’s said and shown in court will count. …
It will be intersting to see what stories about the attempted bombings emerge from the rest of the world’s media as, um, the case continues.
Mad? No, just doing the sensible thing. The BBC is defying a police request not to show the pictures, which were originally issued by the police and are now available from web sites all over the world, because showing them in Britain might compromise the fairness of their trial.
A police request can’t result in contempt of court charges, but this could change if the Attorney General or the court issues a gag order, it could happen.
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.
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.
The Chartered Institute of Journalists, one of Britain’s journalists’ unions, has also condemned the use of amateur photographs by broadcasters in their coverage of the bombings.
In a letter to the jounralists’s trade newspaper Press Gazette, the CIoJ expressed concern that big media organisations are exploiting citizen reporters by “grabbing” the potentially-lucrative rights to their footage with no payment and no responsibilty for the danger amateurs might face collecting images:
The union said that US-based broadcaster CNN “takes the prize” for “sheer effrontery”. On its website CNN tells those who send in material: “You agree to indemnify defend and hold harmless CNN, its parent and affiliated companies, its and their licensees, successors and assigns, and each of its and their officers, agents and employees from all liabilities or losses, including, without limitation, reasonable attorney’s fees”.
The CIoJ said: “These TV companies deserve condemnation for their outrageous demands and their disregard for the danger they may be subjecting their viewers to in their attempt to obtain picture material. Just in case anyone thinks these dangers are exaggerated, remember that two Press Photographers in recent times have met their death while attending major news stories in London alone. One killed by the IRA Bishopsgate bomb blast in the City of London, the other during rioting in Brixton.
“We, at the Chartered Institute of Journalists recommend that non-professionals should not send in material to these above mentioned TV companies while they continue to exploit and denigrate news photography and their potential contributors, both professional and non-professional, in this way.”
To some extent, there is an element of photojournalists protecting their professional turf here.
Their point about the dangers press photographers face is a odd, because professional crisis photographers chose to attend high-risk locations. The 7/7 cameraphone pictures, by contrast, were taken by people who happened to be caught up in the attacks. They did not chose to be put in the position of being able to gather that material.
But on the other hand, the CIoJ have a point about exploitation. Posting your cameraphone pictures on a blog is one thing, but handing them over to a big media outlet to sell is a completely different relationship.
If you have a particularly good picture, why should you hand it over for someone else to profit from? Freelance journalists get paid for this sort of thing, and so should you.
The arrested suspects alleged to be the failed London suicide bombers might not be able to get a fair trial in Britain because of the media’s reporting of their arrests, Press Gazette reported this week.
In an open letter the human rights group Liberty urged the atterney general, Lord Goldsmith, to remind the media of the contempt of court laws. They are particularly concerned about the reporting of an alleged confession by Osman Hussain, the suspect arrested in Italy. These reports were apparently based on a leak from Italian law enforcement sources (letter, PDF).
As I understand it, there is no seperate media law for bloggers, so everything being said about newspapers here also applies to us.