Editors to campaign against inquests being held in secret

Editors are to lobby Parliament to
overturn controversial plans to curb the traditional freedom of
journalists to report investigations into suspicious deaths.

Lord
Chancellor Lord Falconer has plunged the Government into head-on
collision with the media by proposing new powers for coroners to impose
reporting restrictions at inquests and even bar journalists from
identifying the deceased.

Both the public and press could also be excluded from the court when evidence is given.

Reporters
who defy the new law, or help others name the deceased would face
prosecution for contempt of court and could be jailed.

The shake
up is designed to spair the pain of families following child deaths or
suicides. But it could lead to many inquests being held effectively in
secret and breaches the principle that justice must be seen to be done.

Bob
Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, said:"If we
move in that direction we would be taking the first step to becoming a
banana republic where people vanish from the streets."

After editors expressed their concern the Newspaper Society vowed to take the campaign against the proposed law to Parliament.

Before
introducing legislation a draft bill will be subject to pre-legislative
scrutiny by the cross-party Constitutional Affairs Select Committee.
That will provide the newspaper industry and editors with the
opportunity to express their concern in evidence to MPs who will then
report their own recommendations to ministers.

Constitutional
Affairs Minister Harriet Harman said she would also arrange for
families who have had recent experience of the coroners' service to
given evidence to MPs as well.

Presenting
the draft bill, which
has 81 clauses and ten schedules, to Parliament, Lord Falconer said:
"We recognise public inquests as a powerful and valuable part of
impartial and independent investigations.

"But we also know of
the additional grief and pain that can arise from bereaved people from
making public personal details. In some cases, for example some
apparent suicides and child deaths, we do not believe that any public
interest is served by this process and the bill wll give the coroner a
power to restrict reporting in these circumstances, by ordering that
facts and findings which identify the deceased should not be published.

Satchwell
said: "It is outrageous and undermines a fundamental and serious
principle. We have always been proud in this country that when someone
dies a proper investigation is carried out."

Santha Rasaiah,
director of legal and regulatory affairs at the Newspaper Society,
said:"There are areas of real concern for regional newspapers,
including the new power to make reporting restrictions, to prevent the
identification of the deceased, and a new power to exclude the press
and public from the court when evidence is being given.

"We will
submit our detailed concerns to the select committee. We hope the
select committee and the Government will address those concerns."

The
proposals also aroused concern in Parliament. Tory constitutional
affairs spokesman Oliver Heald said:"The principle of open justice is
vital in the English legal system and it would only be in the most
exceptional circumstances that this principle should be broken."

Simon
Hughes, Liberal Democrat spokesman, said: "Proposals to close the doors
and shut out the public are worrying and should be resisted. The
provision of justice must always be seen to be done."

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