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Briefings, leaks and contempt of court

For the second time in a couple of months the issue of the flouting of contempt of court laws which are designed to to restrict publicity which could damage defendants’ chances of a fair trial has come up. First there was the naming and pictures of two men arrested in connection with the Ipswich murders (one was charged and the other released) and now a lot of detail about the Birmingham terrorist arrests.

Peter Wilby in Media Guardian writes:

The biggest press scandal of our time is not intrusion on royal privacy – which has just led to a reporter’s imprisonment – but the newspapers’ consistent and brazen disregard for the contempt laws. The police and the government, far from taking steps to apply those laws, have colluded in what amounts to a complete revision of British legal conventions.

He deals exclusively with the Birmingham case and briefings about a plot to kidnap and behead a Muslim soldier. What online readers will miss it a picture of A Birmingham Mail bill with the caption: “Local heroes… the Birminghma Mail has steered clear of the excecesses of the nationals.”

I can’t find a reference to this in the copy: perhaps it was cut. But it did remind me of events in Ipswich. While the national press and broadcasters were using pictures of suspects and interviews the Evening Star was very careful about what it wrote and the pictures used.

Nigel Pickup, the editor, wrote in his blog that there were questions of identity which meant that the use of pictures could lead to a charge of contempt of court. He explained the constraints to his readers.

There is nothing new in this divergence of approach between the national and regional media. The regionals are a part of their communities while the nationals are outsiders.

In my years as a local reporter I remember that when a major story brought the press pack to town it was always a fraught period. You could find yourself apparently scooped by a story which had no verifiable sources and and could not be confirmed for a follow-up.

There was also the danger of holding back on real angles because you had to work with the same contacts in the future. On the whole I think we achieved the right balance for the community as the Evening Star has done in Ipswich and the Mail seems to have done in Birmingham.

Another point arises from Wilby’s column. He says that only the Guardian and the Mirror raised concerns about “police leaking to the media”. But on February 3, a news story, also in the Guardian, started:

Police investigating the alleged plot to abduct and behead a Muslim soldier expressed growing anger yesterday at a series of leaks and briefings which they say are hampering their inquiry.

In a later paragraph it said:

The Ministry of Defence said that it had no idea who was responsible for the briefings, while Home Office officials insisted no briefing had been offered by its press office, but a spokeswoman added: “I can only speak for what has been done on the record by the press office.”

In a further paragraph, a police federation official was quoted saying: “The police force is asking the question, where did it all come from? There may be political reasons for it, such as what was going on at the Home Office and at Downing Street.”

With complaints from political sources about leaks from the loans-for-peerages inquiry as well, these waters look very murky indeed.

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