Rights of prisoners to contact media

A policy which denied prisoners the right to contact the media by telephone whenever the purpose was to comment on matters of legitimate public interest relating to prisons and prisoners has been ruled unlawful.  Access to telephone calls for prisoners is regulated by the Prison Service Order 4400, which includes specific rules on communications with the media. It prohibits calls if "it is intended, or likely, that the call will be used for publication or broadcast".  Prisoners may apply in writing for permission to make such calls but it will only be granted "in exceptional circumstances".  This rule does not affect the prisoner’s right to communicate with the media by written correspondence.

A serving prisoner, John Hirst sought judicial review, claiming infringement of his rights to freedom of expression under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hirst has campaigned for prisoners’ rights for many years.

Although he accepted the need for some controls, he argued that the restrictions applied to telephone calls were too wide and unlawful. He was supported by several members of the media, including journalists from The Daily Telegraph and The Guardian.

The Home Office sought to justify its approach on several grounds, including the problem of exercising effective control over communications by phone and the availability of written communications as an alternative means by which a prisoner could contact the media.

Mr Justice Elias recognised that some restrictions on freedom of speech were necessary in prisons and held that Prison Service Order 4400 was not in itself unlawful.  However, the implementation of what was effectively a blanket ban on media interviews was not justified. In making his decision, he took into account the journalists’ evidence about the need to be able to speak to prisoners directly.

He also emphasised that responsible journalism would go some way to address the authorities’ concern that there would be insufficient opportunity to monitor and control telephone communications.

 

Brian Johnson is a solicitor in the media team of Farrer & Co

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