Monday, 31 January 2011

Bad law proposal

Oh no, not again! MPs are planning to introduce yet another law to interfere with freedom of speech, when it is completely unnecessary.
Granted, politicians often use leaks to the Sunday newspapers to test out public opinion. If their latest wheeze meets a hostile reception, then they can abandon the promised legislation and blame the journalist for making it up.
But the article in the Sunday Times saying the media face a ban on naming criminal suspects had the stamp of official approval. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke and Dominic Grieve, the Attorney-general, no less are said to be supporting the idea.
It comes in a bill tabled by Conservative MP Anna Soubry in the wake of the publicity surrounding the arrest of the retired Bristol schoolmaster Chris Jeffries, who came under the spotlight while being questioned by police investigating the death of Joanna Yeates. Another man has since been charged with her murder.
Now I have blogged before on how disgracefully Mr Jeffries was treated particularly by the tabloid national Press, although the BBC and other electronic media were nearly as bad.
But we don’t need new laws that are almost certain to be interpreted in such a way as to inhibit perfectly legitimate reporting. Just use the laws we already have.
Ms Soubry was reported as saying that the law as it stands means an innocent person can be vilified, have their lives dismantled and their reputation sullied with complete disregard to his or her right to privacy.
That is just wrong. Broadly defamation and contempt of court ought to have the media in a completely water-tight pincer movement once an arrest has been made.
If they vilify someone who is arrested and later proved to be guilty, then the courts can and should prosecute for contempt. If the person is later proved to be innocent, like Mr Jeffries, then he or she can take the media to the cleaners through this country’s draconian libel laws.
The problem is not lack of legislation, but both individuals’ and the authorities’ lack of determination to implement those restrictions which already exist.
Interestingly Ms Soubry worked as a newspaper and television reporter before becoming a barrister and then an MP. She should know better.

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