John Wilkes would have loved it: lawyers advising editors that they could be hauled before the courts for reporting something said in the British parliament.
We have the situation where today you can read something in Hansard (www.parliament.uk), the parliamentary record, that only one newspaper, so far as I know, has chosen to publish.
On Thursday Lord Campbell-Savours asked Baroness Scotland, a Home Office minister, if the Government was considering any proposals for reform of the rape law. He referred to the case of a man who had spent three and a half years in prison for rape, after a false allegation, before being exonerated. He named the woman who he said “has a history of making false accusations and having multiple identities”. He wanted women who made false allegations of rape to be named and prosecuted for perjury.
The BBC included the name in its parliamentary coverage but not in subsequent news stories. Yesterday on the Radio 4 PM programme it was made clear the decision was taken on legal grounds because of the prohibition on the naming of women making allegations of sexual assault. While there is also a moral case for not using her name, that was not the reason used by BBC in making its decision.
The Daily Mail used her name but no other papers. The Press Association which removed the woman’s name from its reports gave legal reasons for the excision. The Guardian today has an interview with the woman who denies making a false accusation but does not name her, respecting her request that she should not be anonimity.
The reporting of Parliament is covered by absolute privilege which means that anything said in the chambers of the Commons and the Lords can be reported without fear of prosecution. It was a hard won right. The imprisonment of MP and journalist John Wilkes (Wikipedia) for publishing, in number 45 of his journal The North Briton (1763), a critical report of the King’s speech is seen as the turning point.
In 1771 parliament ceased to punish the publication of its debates (Wikipedia). More than two centuries later it would make for what lawyers call “an interesting case” if a journalist was prosecuted, under a act passed by the parliament, for publishing what was said in parliament .