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Lord Black: Teacher reporting restrictions ‘unprecedented, unnecessary and unworkable’

June 16th, 2011 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

Speaking in the House of Lords on Tuesday, Lord Black of Brentwood, who is also executive director of the Telegraph Media Group, raised his concerns about Clause 13 of an education bill, which would introduce reporting restrictions on alleged teacher misconduct.

Addressing the House Lord Black said he feared he would be “a lone voice” in raising what he felt were “serious repercussions for freedom of expression and the rights of children”.

First, it is unprecedented because it gives to a particular group of professionals a right that no one else enjoys. Yes, it is appalling if a teacher is falsely accused of a crime-and I take to heart the comments of my noble friend Lady Perry – but that happens in other careers involving children, too. If this reaches the statute book, who really believes that the move towards greater secrecy in the justice system will stop there? We had a glimpse of that in the speech of the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Whitchurch. The GMC has already started a campaign arguing that doctors called before its disciplinary committee to answer charges of abusing a patient should not be identified. Interfering with the media’s ability to report in this way is therefore profoundly dangerous-the thin end of a wedge that will lead inexorably to much wider reporting restrictions that will undermine the long-held principle that, for justice to be effective, it must be open and transparent.

Those principles exist for good reason because not all criminal misconduct is prosecuted. Teachers accused rightly of assaults might never be charged by the police due to lack of evidence or because of failure to take a whistleblower seriously. A teacher might be dismissed from a school and, for whatever reason, the school and those involved want no publicity. Allowing him or her indefinite anonymity has frightening implications for the welfare of children. As I understand it, it would also be an offence to name a teacher accused of a crime even if he or she were identified at an inquest or in a civil court action. The media or a parent would have to apply to another court to lift the reporting restrictions, as would anyone who wanted to publish the findings of an official inquiry. In an open society, that cannot be right.

He closed by urging the Government “to think again”, and if they press ahead to amend the current bill to include the provision of a public interest defence and the exemption of courts and other statutory bodies from the automatic restrictions.

Hatip: The Newspaper Society

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Jon Venables’ new conviction reignites anonymity debate

The anonymity debate surrounding Jon Venables, who was jailed in 1993 for the murder two-year-old James Bulger, was reignited today after news that Venables has been sent back to prison for two years for downloading and distributing indecent images of children.

Venables served just under eight years behind bars for the murder of James Bulger with friend and accomplice Robert Thompson. Upon their release in 2001, both men were granted new identities under the Mary Bell order.

Venables, however, was arrested again in March this year, appearing in court today via video-link.

He is reported to have pleaded guilty to three offences under the 1978 Protection of Children Act, for downloading 57 indecent pictures of children, distributing three images between February 2009 and February 2010 and 42 images in February 2008.

The conviction has re-ignited the debate over Venables’ continued anonymity, and he appeared in court today under his original name.

Protection of his new identity was renewed following his arrest, over fears he would be at risk of physical harm if the public knew his identity, although a judge lifted reporting restrictions in June relating to the new charges brought against him.

His lawyers Irwin Mitchell Solicitors sent a copy of the gagging order to all publications across the country in June, reminding them of the legal restrictions preventing them from reporting the details of Venables’ new identity.

Media law consultant David Banks told Journalism.co.uk that while it will probably be widely debated, his anonymity is likely to remain in place, both now and upon his release.

“I suspect the anonymity will continue because firstly, he’s going to be in prison until the authorities are satisfied he is no longer a threat, and then, when they decide he poses no threat, the court will take some convincing that, if he is no longer a threat, he should be identified and therefore put at risk of death or serious injury at the hands of vigilantes.

“It’s a balance – his right to life versus the public’s right to protection. The courts, thus far, have taken the view that the public is protected by means other than letting everyone know who he is and where he lives. This case might change that view, but I suspect it will not.”

Earlier this year, following Venables’ arrest, Lady Butler-Sloss gave her support to Jack Straw’s decision to keep his offence and identity a secret.

“This young man may or may not be tried. He may or may not have committed offences,” she told peers. “There is, of course, at least the possibility that he has committed no offence.  And consequently, he may therefore be allowed again to be out (of jail) on licence.”

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Independent.co.uk: Online ‘made a mockery of High Court’ in Baby P case

August 12th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Editors' pick, Legal

“The rules which should have prevented online publication are governed by an outdated piece of legislation enacted at a time when Parliament could not have comprehended what a website might be, never mind know how one might work in the context of the criminal law,” writes the Independent’s law editor, Robert Verkaik.

Verkaik is referring to the transgression of reporting restrictions, which banned the identification of Baby P’s mother and stepdad, by bloggers, online forum users and Facebook groups. The restrictions were officially lifted this week.

“There then appears to be a double standard at work, where the law is incapable of punishing flagrant breaches of court orders by internet transgressors while imposing draconian sentences on the mainstream media for committing much less serious breaches. The internet was born into a lawless cyberspace and has little respect for the fusty orders of the High Court.”

Full article at this link…

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Reporting restrictions: who can access them?

As reported on the main site, and as I commented previously on this blog, reporting restrictions which – if broken – would contravene the British Contempt of Court Act, seem increasingly irrelevant.

My own experiences in trying to access the reporting restrictions are perhaps a case in point. Since posting the earlier blog item on the Baby P case, we have had comments posted to this blog which we immediately suspected would contravene the reporting restrictions.

I decided to ring the Old Bailey to find out what they were. Firstly, being put through to the press room by error led to a bizarre encounter with someone (a maverick journalist?) who, extremely rudely, told me ‘you don’t pay’ so ‘why should I send you them to you’, suggesting that I put £50 in an envelope to access them.

His identity remains a mystery (he told me he had forgotten his name before hanging up). I then called the correct department who asked me to send my request by fax. After another couple of stages in which I had to confirm my status as a journalist, I finally accessed the material.

Now I know, for certain, that many of the blog comments we deleted could have seen us prosecuted under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, had we published them. The restrictions themselves forbid me to go into anymore detail than that.

The point here is that bloggers who write about Baby P have no way of accessing the reporting restrictions and therefore no way of knowing whether comments are libellous in breach of the Contempt of Court Act, or not.

When I asked the executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, about educating the general public about Contempt of Court he did not consider it a priority, suggesting that any policing of the internet was something of a lost cause.

But, nevertheless, before (that’s if they do) reforms come in, we have a tricky predicament. Surely, as an intermediary measure there’s a need for anonymised reporting restrictions which would explain to bloggers, social network users and citizen journalists why they can’t print certain details.

After all, journalists – on the whole – understand the need for protection of fair trials. Isn’t it time to explain things better to untrained online publishers?

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Naming Baby P is not about giving into a Facebook campaign

November 18th, 2008 | 12 Comments | Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Naming Baby P and his mother is not about giving into a hysterical Facebook campaign group; this is about confronting the reality of the online age.

I can’t link to it here, because it would be breaching reporting restrictions, but I know Baby P’s name, the baby’s mother’s name and the name of her partner.

So does anyone with even a little bit of Google cache savvy about them: it’s on a BBC report from 2007. Google cache preserves a page even if, as the BBC has done, original articles have been removed.

As the Independent reported, Facebook groups have published the details, despite the court order not to.

My argument is not about revealing the names for justice, it is about having a law which can actually be enforced.

If it had been reported abroad, on non-UK websites, they would be not be held accountable under the UK Contempt of Court legislation. Court orders, such as the one in this case protecting the names of the defendants, are simply not feasible in the web age.

I believe that whatever ensures fair trials without prejudice, protects the innocent people involved in the case (other people connected or in the family, for example) is necessary, and if keeping the names secret does that, then that should be done: I certainly won’t be joining any Facebook group to force their disclosure.

But it should be done in such a way where they really are secret, which has not happened in this case:

Jason Owen’s name is known; the mother’s name has also been previously published and is reachable with a quick search; the baby’s photograph is in the press.

One of the Facebook groups has a description reading: ‘For sum [sic] reason the press have seen it fit not to reveal the sick people who killed this poor helpless child.’

The press has not chosen to keep quiet (they certainly would print the names if they could); they are bound by law not to. But what happens when the wider community who have not been taught about reporting restrictions and contempt of court choose to publish, using blogs and social network sites?

I imagine that most people in that community, and wider geography, knows who the family are. Last night’s BBC Panorama showed that the research team were able to access things the mother wrote on social networking sites.

Yet the names cannot be disclosed by the British press without contravening the Contempt of Court Act. This means that disclosures are made through people who aren’t necessarily so concerned about, or even think about, media ethics or face any kind of editorial process.

As I reported in September, Bob Satchwell from the Society of Editors believes the legislation is out of date and redundant, as do many others.

Orders, such as those under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, for example, allow a court to ban publication of specific information, in addition to statutory reporting restrictions. But how on earth to enforce this in an online world?

This is starkly proven in the case of Baby P.

It’s time to readdress our laws, as Satchwell has urged the Attorney General, and make trials really fair.

Postscript: I’ve just found Martin Belam’s blog post, which makes a similar point, and also focuses on the ‘sheer scale of useage of the internet’ in the UK as compared to 2000 when Victoria Climbié case was reported, for example.

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