Trial of patience to report terrorist case

For
a year, the media were stopped from reporting one of the most important
trials in recent British history. Ian Wylie describes what it was like
to cover the Bourgass case

THE PUBLIC gallery was empty
for one of the most dramatic trials ever heard in Court Two at the Old
Bailey. Reporters on the press benches wrote thousands of words every
day and followed the case for a year without being able to print a
single line.

The trial of Kamel Bourgass for the murder of Special Branch officer
Stephen Oake and the attempted murder of three other policemen began
exactly 12 months ago this week.

In normal circumstances, the
public would have crowded into the first-floor gallery, which remained
open. But in the absence of daily headlines and TV news reports, there
were few visitors.

Although the media were all too aware of the
murder trial, the details had to remain secret until two subsequent
trials were concluded.

I had covered the story from the first
appearance of Bourgass before Bow Street magistrates, sitting at
Belmarsh Prison, soon after his January 2003 arrest in Manchester.
Within minutes, there was legal argument about him. It was a sign of
things to come.

Over the course of two Old Bailey trials lasting
a total of ten months, the Manchester Evening News and others were
frustrated by being unable to report what, by any assessment, was a
major story.

Prosecution and defence agreed the murder of a
police officer was of “exceptional public interest”. So were the links
to international terrorism, the discovery of items related to deadly
poisons and bomb-making, an official, unpublished, report into the
conduct of senior Greater Manchester police officers, and issues
concerning handcuffing and immigration.

Interests of justice

But
the court ruled that, in the interests of justice, none of this could
then be divulged. Michel Massih QC, counsel for Bourgass, said the
court’s “primary duty” was to ensure his client had a fair trial.

We
were among several media organisations involved in a challenge to the
blanket ban on reporting, led by Andrew Caldecott QC. He told the
judge: “It’s hard to conceive of a trial where the public interest of
open reporting is higher.” The challenge, on April Fool’s Day 2004, was
rejected.

Just a few weeks after the Madrid bombings, leading
defence QC Michael Mansfield argued for a ban on immediate reporting.
The sensational trials would receive a blizzard of publicity,
involving, as they did, defendants of north African descent and
allegations of sleeper cells and terrorism. He also highlighted the
Metropolitan Police warning that an al-Qaeda attack in Britain was a
question of “not if, but when”.

Mansfield
said even allowing for a “robust jury” and “strong directions” from the
judge, reporting of the murder trial would prejudice the later
proceedings.

“No one is suggesting that the press should be excluded – they can report it at the end.”

Several
pre-trial legal hearings ended with Mr Justice Penry-Davey imposing an
order under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 preventing the press from
reporting anything until proceedings had concluded in all three
scheduled trials.

Reporters covering the Old Bailey murder trial,
and subsequent second trial for conspiracy to murder and use poisons
and explosives, were in for a surreal experience. When Bourgass was
found guilty of the murder of Detective Constable Oake and jailed for
life, there was no rush to file. No one, apart from patient newsdesks,
could be told.

Bourgass was brought to court every day amid some
of the tightest security ever seen at the Central Criminal Court. The
armed convoy from Belmarsh Prison sped through the capital, also
guarded by a police helicopter hovering overhead. It was quite a show
of sirens, blue flashing lights and guns, but again, nothing could be
reported.

Although the jury never saw them, teams of armed police
wearing bullet-proof vests were on duty just outside the courtroom each
day. Other police officers sat in plain clothes inside.

Rapidly
assembling enough material to write a book apiece on the case, the
press were regularly moved to the back of the court behind large brown
screens, as Special Branch officers – who could not be identified –
gave evidence. The entire court proceedings were then hidden from our
view.

Legal delays

The second trial was scheduled to last three months.

In
the event, because of legal delays, applications and jury illness, it
went on for seven. Yet again, none of it could be relayed to the public.

Earlier
this month, it became clear that the lifting of reporting restrictions
might be just days away. The jury had returned not guilty verdicts on
four co-defendants, found Bourgass guilty of conspiracy to commit public
nuisance using poisons and explosives – a charge which, despite its
name, carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment – and were still
deliberating on one remaining charge against him of conspiracy to
murder.

By Tuesday of last week, the jury had been out for almost
84 hours. Having established they were deadlocked, the judge discharged
them. The Crown now had to decide whether to re-try Bourgass on the
remaining charge and whether to proceed with the third and final trial
of four other defendants.

The court was set to resume at 2.15pm
the next day, when we would learn if there were to be months of further
proceedings – or whether this would be the day we could finally tell
the story.

With all the indications pointing towards the latter
outcome, the media pack turned up in strength at the Old Bailey for
decision day – 13 April – and speculated about how many hours it would
be before the lengthy legal process allowed us to report what was
happening. BBC News journalist Jeremy Britton and The Sun’s Simon
Hughes, among those who had a detailed understanding of the trials,
were just two experts much in demand.

Shortly after 1pm, I sat in
the empty courtroom and composed a hand-written note for the judge on
behalf of the press, reminding him that we had been prevented from
reporting anything for over a year and asking that restrictions be
lifted at the earliest available opportunity, should it be decided not
to proceed further. It may have been a matter of little consequence to
the court, but the clock was ticking on dozens of deadlines, including
ours.

To his credit, Mr Penry-Davey raised the matter with the
prosecution almost as soon as he took his seat in court. The sight of
over 40 journalists, many standing poised by the door, may also have
concentrated his mind. He lifted restrictions at 4.03pm – the earliest
opportunity – in time for the MEN to press the button on a special
edition that night.

Months of editorial planning kicked in for
the next day’s editions. An “Untold Evil” front page set the tone for
10 more pages of coverage and four the day after.

In an age of
instant, 24-hour rolling TV news, some media outlets did not devote
resources to the long-running trials – “what, no copy?” – and appeared
overwhelmed by having to report it all at the end. And, as with most
high-profile trials, commentators who were not in court to hear all the
evidence, or the background to it, were soon coming forward with their
own opinions.

Human tragedy

We can only guess how many pages
would have been filled had the media been able to report proceedings
contemporaneously. Detailed evidence was presented about poisons,
explosives and terror. But no one was left in any doubt that a human
tragedy lay at the centre of the story – the murder of a police officer.

Back
in April of last year, Michael Mansfield maintained the real issue
concerning the press in fighting the restrictions was the circulation
of newspapers.

“They don’t think the public will be quite so interested in what they have to say if it’s reported months later,” he said.

Although we could not publish daily accounts, there was never any doubt about the public interest.

Our
readers were denied the opportunity of reading about these important
trials at the time. So it was right and proper that, as soon as the ban
was lifted, the MEN delivered in terms of both the scope and depth of
its coverage. The public gallery may have been empty, but the press was
still watching.

Ian Wylie is London editor of the Manchester Evening News

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