The Soham case – freedom or responsibility?

26 August 2002 – Did we miss something? Has the hallowed sub judice rule, which prevents the publication of speculative material following the arrest of a suspect, been repealed in the weeks prior to the Soham case? Has the Contempt of Court Act, barring publication of material which might be prejudicial to a fair trial, been annulled to allow the unfettered media pursuit of the alleged killer(s) of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells? To judge from the media rampage over the past three weeks, which has drawn no more than an extremely belated word of caution from the Attorney General, it would certainly seem so.

These are rules which every budding reporter learns at his mentor’s knee. In the strictest sense they may be restrictive of press freedom, but they have a very real and beneficial purpose: to uphold the principle of a person being innocent until found guilty by a jury of his or her peers, and to guarantee, as far as possible, a fair trial. In more than 50 years of journalism I have never heard a complaint that these restrictions are unjust.

Things are very different on the other side of the Atlantic where the First Amendment, so admirable in many other ways, gives the press total freedom to say whatever it likes about an accused person before and during their trial. The results are predictably horrendous for those involved, many of whom turn out to be innocent. As in so many other aspects of British life, are we now to follow the American example?

No one would seek to restrict the coverage of what was undeniably a major story in the weeks prior to the arrests, although the offer of huge rewards for information by the tabloids was a highly questionable tactic aimed at commercial advantage rather than furthering the course justice. It is what has happened since – the relentless focus on the private lives and past doings of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr – which appears to have breached the accepted norm. Lawyers for the pair will doubtless argue that it would be impossible to empanel an unbiased jury anywhere in this country after such an onslaught, and it would be hard to argue to the contrary. Where could they get a fair trial? Upper Volta, perhaps?

There are grounds for suspicion that the authorities themselves may have been complicit in what has happened. The “arrest on suspicion,” for example, allowed a grey area in the sub judice rule before charges were brought, though most journalists have always understood the mere fact of an arrest to be sufficient to bring the rule into effect. The lack of any official curb on coverage, even after the couple were charged, also provokes the thought that overwhelming public hostility may be necessary to bolster a weak case. Remember Barry George.

Press freedom is important, but responsibility in its exercise is no less so. Among newspapers driven by intense competition, both journalistic and commercial, it is sometimes easy to forget that some things are even more important in a democratic society. One of them is the presumption of innocence, and another the right to a fair trial. To undermine these, even in such an horrendous case as this, is to go down an extremely dangerous path.

Bill Norris
Associate Director

(Bulletin No 71)

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