Suffice to say, press coverage of the recent arrests in Birmingham over the alleged plot to behead a Muslim soldier have been a disgrace. In other cases such as the BNP chemicals case the press wrote nothing in order to avoid prejudicing the trial, and yet in this case Al-Qaeda was dragged in without any demonstrable evidence and without the trial having even started.
Today, the human rights group Liberty has written to the home secretary asking for details of briefings given to journalists about the arrests. On BBC News:
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said she was “gravely concerned” by reports the Home Office may have “secretly and speculatively briefed journalists as security operations were under way”.
“Any such practices risk undermining the work of police and prosecutors and jeopardise both the trust and safety of the public.
Liberty has also issued a Freedom of Information Request asking what was said to journalists by home office officials. See their press release today.
Today the shadow home secretary David Davis has also spoken out on the issue, and I’ve just received this from Tory press office:
David Davis: concern relating to media handling of counter-terrorism operation in Birmingham last week.
Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, has today written to the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Permanent Secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington, regarding the procedure for Counter-Terrorism Operations and Press Briefings, and seeking clarification of the procedures in place regulating press contact.
Letter to Sir David Normington, Home Office Permanent Secretary:
You will be aware of the increasing concern relating to the media handling of the police counter-terrorism operation in Birmingham last week. I would be grateful if you could clarify the standing procedures in place regulating press contact in such cases.
In particular, please could you provide me with an explanation of the agreed procedures for police counter-terrorism briefings to the press with respect to ongoing matters or those of an operational, sensitive or confidential nature?
In addition, it would be useful to know when such briefings would be expected to be left to the Home Office â€“ rather than the police â€“ and what procedures apply to media briefings in those circumstances.
Finally, I would be grateful for a clear statement of the circumstances (if any) in which it would be appropriate for Special Advisers to engage in briefing of this nature â€“ whether on a formal or informal basis â€“ in relation to ongoing police matters.
But all this is not enough The real problem here isn’t just the home office or the police, although they are part of the nexus that prejudice coverage, but the Attorney General, who refuses to step in and say that press coverage is damaging any hope for a fair trial. Without that people will continue breaking the law.
In yesterday’s Media Guardian Peter Wilby also wrote on this issue. As you have to register to read the article, I’ve copied and pasted it below.
The biggest press scandal of our time is not intrusion on royal privacy – which has just led to a reporter’s imprisonment – but the newspapers’ consistent and brazen disregard for the contempt laws. The police and the government, far from taking steps to apply those laws, have colluded in what amounts to a complete revision of British legal conventions. The Press Complaints Commission, always active in trying to protect the royals, has so far refused on this issue even to investigate.
Take last week’s coverage of the alleged kidnap plans by Birmingham-based Muslims. “The execution plot: Terror gang planned to kidnap, torture and behead a soldier on our doorstep,” announced the Sun. Just in case we wanted to know what an execution might look like, the front page showed the US hostage Nick Berg being executed in Iraq in 2004. The Times front page prominently quoted “a senior police source”, a ubiquitous and garrulous creature on these occasions: “This is Baghdad come to Birmingham … The soldier would have been filmed dressed up … like Kenneth Bigley.” The Times duly printed a picture of Bigley, a Briton murdered in Iraq in 2004, in an orange jump suit.
Under the sub judice laws, journalists are supposed, from the moment of arrest, to confine themselves to the barest details and to avoid publishing material which might prejudice a jury if the case came to trial. Judge for yourself whether the coverage fell within the laws.
“There would have been no negotiations and no mercy for the victim,” explained Philip Johnston in the Telegraph. The operation was “orchestrated by al-Qaeda”, confided the Mail. The soldier would be filmed “against the backdrop of a Jihad banner as he pleaded for his life,” according to the Express, which also assured us the executioner would be hooded.
Some of the suspects had travelled to Pakistan “where they were put in touch with extremist groups”, revealed the Times. Police had found “grisly videos of beheadings”, said the Sun. They had also found “personal dossiers on soldiers, including addresses, car numbers and places of work”, added the Mirror. Circumstantial evidence may not be admissible in court, but it is certainly allowed in the papers. One of the premises raided by the police, the Maktabah bookshop, “has links with several past and present terror suspects”, noted the Telegraph.
As well as “incendiary works”, it had “display cases stacked with veils, incense sticks, huge jars of perfume and an array of ceremonial candles”, the Times reported damningly.
The papers dutifully scattered “alleged” through their stories but, the morning after the raids, neither the Express nor the Sun managed to get the word on their front pages. Indeed, the Sun criticised BBC news for noting that “the intelligence services often get it wrong”. “Just whose side are these guys on?” the paper demanded.
Only the Guardian and the Mirror, with articles by Duncan Campbell and Roy Hattersley respectively, raised immediate concerns about police leaking to the media. Perhaps the coverage worries only men of a certain age, like me, Hattersley, my former Observer colleague Robert Chesshyre (who denounced the press coverage on the First Post website) and my former Sunday Times colleague Peter Dunn, who complained to the PCC last summer about similar coverage of the alleged plot to blow up airlines. As Dunn put it in his letter to the PCC (which has belatedly agreed to put his concerns on the agenda for its code of conduct committee): “During the 25 years I worked for the Sunday Times, no newspaper lawyer would have let this stuff through.”
Some will say we old hacks should accept that, in the age of 24-hour news and the internet, nobody can stop the circulation of speculative details about high-profile alleged crimes. But there are several reasons why I think the subject needs urgent consideration.
First, printed newspapers, to say nothing of the police, still carry far more authority than tittle-tattle on the internet. Moreover, while few jurors would have bothered to dig out old newspaper cuttings before a trial, it is quite possible that some would refresh their memories from electronic files. The danger is not only that juries may be prejudiced against innocent people but also that, if a defence counsel convinces a judge that the coverage went too far, a trial of genuine terrorists could collapse.
Second, if we are so concerned about the privacy of the royals and other celebrities who live in the public eye and often welcome publicity, why are we not equally concerned about the privacy of previously obscure men who may well prove innocent? What is it like for their families to see emblazoned across the papers damning, and possibly incorrect, details about their loved ones?
Third, we should consider the effect on Muslim neighbourhoods. Large numbers of brown faces rarely appear in the papers except in the context of anti-terrorism operations. Whether or not they have anything to do with terrorism or with the suspects, they are invariably shown in a negative light. Several papers ran pictures of three heavily veiled Birmingham women. One was giving a V-sign, another was shielding her face with her hand and a third, a Sun caption helpfully explained, “stared icily ahead”. If their neighbourhood had been infested by cameras all day, these were probably natural reactions and, for all you and I know, a photographer may have provoked them deliberately.
When Prince William’s girlfriend, Kate Middleton, gets similar treatment, the great and the good, with the PCC to the fore, spring to her defence, and newspapers, led by a sanctimonious Les Hinton, boss of News International, call the hounds off. I wonder if we shall see similar concern and similar restraint as events unfold in Birmingham.
The PCC, to all intents and purposes, is a gigantic waste of time on these issues. The only way forward would be to put some pressure on the Attorney General.
Update: Two have already been released.
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Filed in: Civil liberties,Media