A three-part plan to help us better report the 'terrorist threat'

A few years back, John Reid visited the Five News studios for a sit-down interview. He brought along his special adviser, one time Five News staffer Steve Bates. As Reid gave his pugnacious exculpatory interview on telly, Bates was left in the editor's office.

A few minutes later we discovered him at the editor's desk, perusing messages and running orders, having what I suppose you'd call "a nose around". Discovered mid-snoop, he couldn't even manage a blush.

Bates, now at the Home Office with Reid, couldn't possibly be one of those "misguided individuals who betray confidences" referred to by terror chief Peter Clarke. Bates wouldn't need to "curry favour with certain journalists" or "squeeze out some short term presentational advantage".

Only Clarke knows who he had in mind when he chose to attack those who leaked sensitive information. But his speech had bigger targets that we're in danger of ignoring amid the usual knee-jerk demands for an inquiry.

Clarke wanted to address both the political impartiality of the police service and public understanding of the terrorist threat. These are issues that affect both government and journalists.

To guarantee them we need three things.

First, more effective parliamentary oversight of the executive select committees with teeth.

Second, a judicial system where information can be made public and challenged publicly without the assumption that jurors are so easily prejudiced as to be unable to try cases on the basis of the information placed before them in courts.

Third, separation of the provision of public information from the marketing and PR functions (to use a quaint term from the 1930s "propaganda") of government and administration.

Until that happens the public's understanding of the terrorist threat will come from their second-guessing the motives of sources from security services, the police and politics when they choose to leak information to the media.

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