PCC in plea against Coroner gagging powers

The chairman of the Press Complaints Commission has urged the Government not to clampdown on journalists’ right to report on inquests.

In response to consultation over the Coroners Bill, Sr Christopher Meyer has urged the Government not to allow coroners to impose reporting restrictions on the press.

Under the proposed legislation, Coroners could ban journalists from reporting the name of the deceased thus removing a major source of stories for the regional and national press.

Meyer said in his letter: “I am concerned about one of the main proposals in the draft Bill. This is that coroners should be able to impose reporting restrictions in certain cases.

“I realise that the motivation is based on an understandable concern for bereaved relatives. Such people contact the Press Complaints Commission frequently. We are experienced in dealing with their concerns, and indeed have suggestions about how they could be helped further.

"But I am worried that by requiring a case by case public interest test about whether anonymity should be granted, the interests of the broader public in having an open system of hearings into deaths will be overlooked.

“In other words, there will surely be a temptation for coroners, when faced with applications for anonymity from the bereaved, to side with those vulnerable individuals who appear before them against the interests of the general public – who will of course be absent and anonymous.

“With each decision to restrict reporting, the principle of open justice will be eroded further. What is more, I cannot believe that it will be at all easy for a coroner to take a rounded view at the outset of a hearing on whether or not there is no public interest in hearing the case in public.

“The right of journalists to report on inquests is not to be defended solely in terms of press freedom, although that is of course important. Such a right is also a key feature of an open society in which the public as a whole has a right to know what is going on, and be reassured that there are no cover ups of unusual or premature deaths.

“As with evidence given in other courts, the possibility of public scrutiny also focuses the minds of those appearing before the coroner on the importance of giving accurate evidence.”

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