4 December 2001 – We all make mistakes, and the Manchester Evening News made a big one in partially identifying the location of the Bulger killers. The existence of the injunction against identification was well known, and the dangers of contravening it and committing contempt of court should have been obvious to the rawest cub reporter. But the editor was away for the day. Those held responsible for the story have suffered internal discipline, and the paper has had to pay a substantial fine (plus even greater legal expenses). Happily there was no fatal outcome to the publication, which was pure good luck for all concerned. Had there been, the penalty would no doubt have been much greater.
It is significant, and welcome, that the ruling was against the publisher rather than individual journalists – since this is a recognition that publishing is a process and that publishers, like journalists, are not above the law. This ruling against the Manchester Evening News is a shot across the bows of the media, and should persuade publishers that the concomitant of press freedom is responsibility.
It remains open to the media to challenge court decisions which they feel run counter to the public interest. If laws passed by due democratic process are felt to be counter to the public’s right to know, or to freedom of expression, then it is proper for the media to challenge them and campaign for changes in the law.
The Human Rights Act Provides a route for all parties to argue their case on public interest, freedom of expression and personal privacy grounds. Considering the generally held view that part of the media’s role is to protect society from abuses of human and civil rights, it is somewhat perverse of the newspaper industry to opine that codifying human rights is against the public interest.
Perhaps the publishers would be doing everyone a favour by mounting appropriate legal challenges to clarify the point at which an individual’s rights should be over-ridden in the interest of the public. That might help to convince the public about the motives behind sensational coverage. However it is difficult to see how the public interest is served by publishing falsified documents – unless to expose the fraudsters – yet The People was happy to use such tainted evidence in an attempt to prevent the release of the killers of James Bulger.
It is worth noting that the reasoning behind the Bulger injunction – the protection of individuals’ physical safety – does not extend to the publication of xenophobic incitement against refugees and ethnic minorities, though these may equally be put in danger by irresponsible stories. And their human rights are certainly no less than those of the Bulger killers. It may be impossible, or even inadvisable, for the courts to interfere in such matters. From the point of view of the media it would certainly be undesirable. But there is one body which could step in and call editors to account: the Press Complaints Commission.
Mike Jempson and Bill Norris
(Bulletin No 55)