UK silence over bombings deafens
By Paul Reynolds
BBC, 5 August 2005
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website
The details emerging from sources abroad about the London bombings illustrate yet again the restrictive attitude adopted by the British police and legal authorities.
We have learned that they were made of easily available ingredients and even that they might have been set off by timers on mobile phones, raising the intriguing question as to whether these were suicide bombers at all.
For those who have worked as reporters in the United States, it has come as little surprise that the information has come from there.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) has a team detailed to examine al-Qaeda-type bomb attacks all round the world and they were sent at once to London. Their findings were given to a meeting of security experts.
Reporters were at the meeting and the NYPD said they had the go-ahead from the Metropolitan Police in London – although they later admitted that was an error.
For those who have worked as reporters in the UK, it comes as no surprise that little information is coming out from here.
There have been other examples. On 7 July, the day of the first bombings, the police here were extremely cautious in giving even an estimate of the number of dead for some hours after the attacks.
Crime scene material
I flew in from Mexico City that day at about two o’clock and was told that only three people had died. Yet Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was visiting London, was already giving a much higher and, as it turned out, not inaccurate figure based on what he had been told by the British authorities.
“ The UK’s paternalistic Contempt of Court law is out of step with democratic times ”
Your Right To Know
Then there were the photos of the insides of bombed carriages and of the nail bombs left in the bombers’ car at Luton. These first appeared on the American network ABC and were presumably obtained from American sources.
As we know, the British have been telling the US a great deal. Scotland Yard asked the British media not to use them on the grounds that they could impede inquiries and prejudice a prosecution. Eventually, however, the media in this country did use them, arguing that they were by then in the public domain.
The police did not explain why inquiries might be hindered but one can guess at one reason. Police often keep quiet about items found at crime scenes in the hope that a suspect refers to them, thereby indicating his or her presence at that scene.
Often the media are happy to comply with police requests. They kept to a news blackout on the day when the 21 July suspects were arrested in London.
And then there are the reported statements coming from the suspect held in Rome, Osman Hussain, who is also known, we learned from Italian police, as Hamdi Issac.
His Italian lawyer has released far more detailed information than would normally be the case if a suspect were arrested in the UK.
The British caution is governed by two factors. One is a law and the other is an attitude.
The law is the Contempt of Court Act 1981.
This bans the publication of material which creates a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced, in particular legal proceedings that are “active” at the time of the publication, and regardless of any intent to do so.
This basically means that once a suspect has been arrested, most information about him or her or anything beyond the bare details of the crime is simply banned.
The thinking is that only a jury should hear such evidence. Otherwise jury members – or indeed potential witnesses – might be “contaminated” or “prejudiced” by what they have heard or seen before they get to the courtroom.
This law explains why, in British criminal cases, the background is only fully revealed by the media after the verdict has been given.
It does not, of course, apply if a suspect dies, which is why so much has come out about the bombers who did die.
In the United States and many other countries, there is no such restriction. The media will reveal details immediately, as they did about the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the Washington sniper, John Allen Muhammad, for example.
The American press and courts guard the right to report very strongly and it is even written into the first amendment to the constitution: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”
This does not allow absolute licence because there are often competing rights from other quarters, but it is a powerful incentive.
The US courts deal with the problem of possible prejudice by questioning juries in advance, but mainly by trusting them to take decisions on what they hear in the evidence, not what they hear in the media.
One problem for the future is the internet. It knows no borders and information on the internet often contravenes the British law of contempt. Can the law survive in such an environment, in which case will new ways of protecting the accused have to be found?
‘Blanket of secrecy’
The other issue in the UK is attitude. There is a basic assumption by many British public bodies that the public does not need to know and that therefore the public will not be told.
Information, often of an innocent or harmless sort, is often hidden under a blanket of secrecy.
It is easier to block all information than to work out which bits might “seriously” impede or prejudice a trial.
Heather Brooke, a campaigner for greater openness who has worked in the United States as reporter herself, runs a British group called Your Right to Know.
In an article in The Independent newspaper she said: “That the police and judges want to stifle this lifeline to information shows the extent to which the UK’s paternalistic Contempt of Court law is out of step with democratic times.”
Ms Brooke went on: “No-one doubts the right of a defendant to have a fair trial, but it must be balanced against the law-abiding public’s right to be kept informed and the victim’s right to justice.
“Where empirical studies have been done – in the US for instance, where there are no such contempt of court laws – the evidence is overwhelming and all points in one direction: media exposure has no effect on a juror’s decision.”
Now jurors would say that wouldn’t they?
But it is time, perhaps, for a debate to be held. And the way that information has been coming out following the London bombs could speed up that process.