A growing campaign is underway to convince Prime Minister Gordon Brown to scrap plans to ban reporters and the public from inquests in the interests of national security.
The Counter-Terrorism Bill – better known for its proposals to detain terror suspects for up to 28 days – includes powers for the Justice Secretary to remove juries from inquests and appoint a government ‘specially appointed coroner”.
The bill would particularly affect military inquests, a rare source of unbiased and unfettered news about the armed forces, which are held at Brize Norton RAF base in Oxfordshire.
The bill is set to be debated in the House of Lords after the parliamentary recess, and if passed campaigners warn it would undermine the ancient right to hold public inquests.
Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, has written to the Ministry of Justice on the subject and will meet with senior officials next month along with the Newspaper Society.
‘The point is that an inquest is an important public occasion. The idea is to alert the public to public concerns and where action should be taken in future,’he said.
‘We have always recognised that at times there is a need to conceal reporting that can be of public interest. But the simple point is that these powers should be used very sparingly.”
Satchwell said powers to ban reporters from inquests could eventually be ‘used in all sorts of cases’to halt the reporting of ’embarrassing’stories for the Government and armed forces.
An act, if passed, could be seen as a u-turn for Brown on his stated aims to increase press freedom and access to information.
At a landmark speech at Westminster University last October, he said his government would extend liberty in Britain in part by ‘respecting freedoms for our press, the removal of barriers to investigative journalism’and ‘respecting the public right to know, new rights to access public information where previously it has been withheld”.
Brown killed off plans to limit access to coroners courts in the same speech last year. He said: ‘In a draft bill, we published proposals which would limit media access to coroners’ courts. Having undertaken extensive consultation we have now decided not to go ahead with these proposals.”
Michael Smith, defence correspondent for The Sunday Times and British Press Awards winner, said: ‘If you have a situation where the Government can say ‘I think this will be a difficult inquest for us’, and can appoint someone [instead of a coroner] it undermines the whole of the justice system. There are already things in place for hearings to be held in camera. Appointing someone who will be seen as a government stooge is no way of ensuring that the justice system is free and fair.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ‘These proposed changes will ensure inquests are as thorough as possible by ensuring that the coroner can always examine all material central to the inquests even if the material can’t be disclosed publicly. (This could be for reasons of national or international security, including where the lives of sources and citizens would be put at risk).”