A leading human rights lawyer has called for stronger enforcement of the Contempt of Court Act to stop journalists irresponsibly reporting terrorist trials.
But in a separate move, the Society of Editors has warned the Government that the current Act has become ‘almost untenable’in the internet age.
The 1981 Act strictly curbs crime reporting once a suspect has been arrested or charged, to avoid prejudicing a trial.
Louise Christian, who has represented defendants in terrorism trials including detainees at Guantanamo Bay, said that tighter controls were needed to ensure fair trials took place. And she said that ultimate control on contempt issues should be taken away from the Attorney General, who is ‘too political’given his cabinet minister role.
Speaking at a one-day conference, organised by Index on Censorship, she said there was ‘an atmosphere of impunity in relation to prejudicial reporting of terrorism trials’and called the situation regarding prejudice in terror cases ‘an absolute disgrace”.
Christian was outraged when her client, Tahira Tabassum, the wife of suicide bomber Omar Sharif, who was charged under the Terrorism Act of not reporting a terrorist act to the police, appeared in the Evening Standard days before a trial at the Old Bailey.
The paper printed a picture of Tabassum and her sister-in-law, who was also facing trial, under the headline: ‘Women of Terror”.
The Attorney General declined to send a letter of warning to the paper, despite a complaint from Christian.
She said: ‘Juries are told not to read the media or listen to anything about the trial, but it beggars belief that they follow those instructions and take no notice of newspapers.”
The Society of Editors is currently in discussion with the Ministry of Justice and Attorney General Baroness Scotland over possible reform of the Contempt of Court Act.
Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said: ‘Our view is that the Contempt of Court Act has been out of date for some time now, and almost untenable in the internet age.”
The availability of foreign news reports online has sometimes led to situations where British papers are unable to report information from trials that is widely in the public domain, a situation Satchwell said was unfair to traditional media.
‘What it means is that the British media can’t report stories that are being reported around the world, which the British public and British jurors have access to,’he said.
‘I’m not advocating that we go totally down the American route, and I don’t think many editors would want what sometimes becomes the farce of television stations interviewing jurors live on mainstream telly, but the system in this country is inappropriate at the moment.”
Satchwell believes the Government should undertake formal academic research into how juries come to their decisions.
‘Our view, and I think most people’s views, even police and judges, is that juries take their responsibility to try their case on the evidence they hear in court very seriously indeed, and put out of mind things they have seen reported months before.”
Satchwell said the Society wants the legal issues surrounding the impact of the internet on court reporting cleared up before it is resolved through a prosecution for contempt.
He said: ‘I don’t want the Attorney General to come out of the woodwork waving a big stick, taking legal action against a paper or a broadcaster. We want to sort issues out so that doesn’t happen. All that would do is take up a lot of court time and expense. It’s far better if we can just move things into the 21st century.”