Attorney General warns journalists of limit to Parliamentary privilege

Parliamentary privilege does not protect a journalist's "own note" of a
debate in either House, where the words being reported would – if they
had been said outside Parliament – have been against the law, the
Attorney General told peers.

"The media has by statute protection from any criminal proceedings if it
publishes an extract or abstract from an officially-approved record of
Parliamentary proceedings – which means Hansard or the Parliament
Channel – provided it publishes in good faith and without malice," the
Attorney, Lord Goldsmith QC, told the House of Lords.

"This statutory protection does not apply where the report is based on a
journalist's own note of proceedings, but whether it would be in the
public interest to prosecute in such cases would depend on all the
circumstances."

The Attorney General was responding at question time following the
incident last month in which Labour Peer Lord Campbell-Savours named a
woman he described as a "serial and repeated liar", whose accusations
had led to a man being wrongly imprisoned for a sexual offence.

The victims of alleged sexual offences are given lifelong anonymity by
the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

The woman's name appeared in Hansard and on the Parliament Channel, but
most sections of the media refused to publish her name, taking the view
that they were not covered by privilege.

The issue was raised on November 20 by Labour Peer Lord Corbett of
Castle Vale who, as an MP, had piloted a Bill to provide anonymity for
rape victims and for rape defendants unless convicted.

He noted that the Sexual Offences Act, which provides anonymity for the
complainant, was passed "to make it less distressing – I don't say
easier – for women to come forward with those complaints where the
circumstances justify it".

Lord Goldsmith commended Lord Corbett's role in the legislation "to
avoid people feeling unwilling to come forward to make complaints
because of concerns about publicity".

He added: "As to informing the media of that law, I am sure they are
very well aware of it already."

Lord Campbell-Savours, who again used privilege to name the woman,
highlighted an "inconsistency" in that the judge at the original trial
for the sexual offence could remove the statutory anonymity from an
alleged victim of a sexual offence, but that the Court of Appeal could
not.

Lord Goldsmith said: "You draw attention to what the terms of the
statute passed by Parliament are, that the trial court first and the
court of appeal both have the ability to remove anonymity if they regard
it as necessary to induce evidence to come forward.

"And the trial judge has the ability, but not the Court of Appeal, to
remove the reporting restriction if it's in the public interest to do
so, but not just because there is an acquittal.

"Why Parliament didn't apply the same to the Court of Appeal, I can't
say."

 

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