Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Cry for freedom

THERE are healthy signs that the judiciary is waking up to the very real threats to society’s basic freedoms from the flood of political interference on the media through new laws and case precedents.
Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, in a speech to the Commonwealth Magistrates' and Judges' Association Conference, said judges could not afford to be divorced from the modern media because of the media's "impact on public thinking and public perception".
He said: "One of my constant refrains is that our judicial independence and the existence of an independent press are mutually self supporting.
"I ask you to find me a society or state in which you have an independent judiciary and a subservient media, or a subservient judiciary and an independent media.
"The short answer is that the pressures that would remove the independence of the judiciary are identical to the same pressures that would remove the independence of the media."
According to Solicitor Nigel Hanson, a member of Foot Anstey's media team writing on the excellent HoldtheFrontPage web-site, he continued by endorsing the right of reporters to challenge inappropriate reporting restrictions themselves in court.
Judge Patrick Moloney QC, a circuit judge who used to be a top libel barrister, expressed concern about the lack of open reporting of the courts.
In a speech he gave to a media law conference, he said: "The time-honoured old art of court reporting, even in the Crown Court, let alone of course the County Court, is dying away."
He was subsequently reported as saying there was no point in judges making lofty pronouncements in court for the benefit of society if no one "ever hears about it because there is nobody in court to hear us say it".
Judges can always arrange for their clerks to ring the local freelance or news desk of the local media if he wants to say something of wider interest to the public and have it reported.
But the judges' comments are valid and bring to mind a string of recent judgments that have highlighted the desirability for court reports and journalism in general to contain real names and personal details so as to be interesting and readable.
In a Supreme Court ruling earlier this year Lord Rodger said: "A requirement to report in some austere, abstract form, devoid of much of its human interest could well mean that the report would not be read and the information would not be passed on.
"Ultimately, such an approach could threaten the viability of newspapers and magazines, which can only inform the public if they attract enough readers and make enough money to survive."
This was a rare recognition of the realities of the commercial media world and welcome. But it is even worse during the current inquest into the death of a barrister by “suicide by police” in an armed siege in London.
Judges, coroners and others in the judiciary need to push back far harder against misguided legislation, which can be complicated, unhelpful and badly drafted.
They need to organise the court system, and this is particularly true of magistrates, so that cases happen when scheduled and are seen through to completion so that there is a final outcome for the media to report on.
Too often lawyers, social workers, the CPS, police and others treat the courts with scant respect by not having their cases prepared in time. Delays for background reports are a further obstacle to timely and topical justice.
Justice needs to be seen to be done as well as done. In the modern world the public at large find it virtually impossible to turn up in courts to see cases for themselves. The media should be enabled to act as their eyes and ears.
This means courts and the media working together for complete mutual benefit. The real winners would be society. Police contacts used to tell me the best crime prevention of all is the fear of publicity.

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