Another knee jerk reaction from our sober politicians, this time reacting to the ‘speculation banquet’ attended by all the national newspapers in the wake of the questioning and subsequent bailing of Chris Jefferies in the Joanna Yeates murder.
Undoubtedly they gorged themselves on every last detail from his hairstyle to lurid speculation from ex-pupils as to his selection of poetry for them to study.
Almost inevitably, should no charges be pressed against Mr Jeffries, he will sue the backside off Canary Wharf’s finest. Quite rightly so. It seems they learnt nothing from the public humiliation they heaped onto Robert Murat in the Madeleine McCann case. Perhaps they did learn something – that it only costs a measly £500,000 to pay for yards of lurid copy that your readers will lap up and link to in on-line versions for years to come. Almost as good value as the CDs of MPs expenses.
However now we have an MP putting forward a private members Bill to ban the media – not from lurid speculation – but from even naming a suspect until a formal charge has been laid. It is apparently supported by the Justice Secretary and the Attorney-General, both of whom appear to have forgotten the origins of the naming of suspects.
If the police are not obliged to give the media names of those suspects that are currently being questioned under caution, then they are not obliged to give anyone the details.
This would mean that you could be taken away in a police car – ‘accompany us to the station for questioning’ – and no one would be able to find out where you were. Is that really the police state we want? People lifted off the streets and disappearing into a western version of the Kremlin?
There has been no outcry at this potential loss of an essential protection – merely relief that the excesses of the media may be curbed.
What was so difficult about putting forward a bill that would prevent the media from any comment other than name, age, and occupation of suspects – the Contempt of Court laws that have operated for years – with the added bonus of lengthy prison sentences for any editor who flouted the rules?
The present arrangement relies on the badly worded contempt laws – and libel, which although it can produce sums which may seem eye-watering to the man in the street, are too little too late to salvage a reputation or a career.
I found an interesting American article from 2008 which essentially blamed the blogosphere for the increasing encroachment on the contempt of court laws – professional newsrooms reacting to the fact that even if they withheld information, it would be published on the Internet by those with local knowledge. The race to hold onto advertisers in the face of stiff competition from the blogosphere may well be behind the current feeding frenzy.
Why else would parliament be happy to curb press freedom to name suspects – but unwilling to beef up the contempt of court rules?