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Crime: Media Reporting

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the rules for reporting the arrest and questioning of individuals by the police before they are charged with any criminal offence.

My Lords, the principle of a free but responsible press without state intervention is fundamental to our democracy, but the right reverend Prelate’s Question raises a number of important issues. On Friday, during the Second Reading of the Anonymity (Arrested Persons) Bill in the other place, the Government undertook to consider whether the contempt laws and guidance on pre-charge reporting contain any gaps that may impede justice.

I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer. I acknowledge that this is a complex area, as emerged in the debate in the other place on Friday, but will the Government at least consider extending the post-charge restrictions on reporting contained in the Contempt of Court Act to pre-charge questioning of suspects?

My Lords, on the whole the Government take the view that we want to maintain a free but, as I said, responsible press. I do not wish at this stage to go any further than to say that the Government think that there is a potential gap in our protections and that they are more than prepared to look at whether the contempt laws and police guidance on reporting contain omissions that need to be remedied.

My Lords, in high-profile cases, as I am sure the Minister knows, the police are often under great pressure from the press and others to make an arrest. Does she agree that it is all the more important in such cases that the police should be scrupulous in applying the test of reasonable suspicion, which is an objective as well as a subjective test?

Yes, my Lords. I think that the police would agree that they need to be scrupulous in applying the guidance that they have in such cases. Indeed, they should apply it in relation to a person who has been detained by them but not charged. They should take care not to impugn that person’s reputation.

My Lords, while the press are usually economical in the reporting of an arrested person, would I be right in surmising that the Attorney-General would have expressed some anxieties about the extent of the reports on the arrests in the Bristol case? As Attorney-General, I sometimes had to refer to the courts cases about which I was anxious. I did so not always successfully, as it was not easy to judge where the line had been crossed. In discussions between the Attorney-General and the press, would there be any merit in revisiting the boundary lines of what is fair reporting without prejudicing an arrested person?

My Lords, the Attorney-General will obviously take his remit extremely seriously. I do not know whether he will choose that route; the view has certainly been expressed, so I have no doubt that he will take notice of it. I can assure the House that the Attorney-General is quite clear that he needs to examine this issue seriously, because it has considerable ramifications.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it is usually unwise to act to change the law because some unfortunate individual has been embarrassed or irritated? Does she also agree that, in this type of case, questioning and the publication of the questioning by police often encourage potential witnesses to jog their memories and assist in the successful prosecution of somebody, not necessarily the first suspect?

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right that this can be of assistance. It obviously has to be balanced with the rights of individuals who may have been detained and subsequently not charged. The Attorney-General has not chosen to act immediately precisely because he wishes to look at the issues involved, not necessarily just at this case. The Private Member’s Bill was not supported by the Government and has been withdrawn, but he is going to look at the issues.

My Lords, in these days of severe attack, one has to be careful about these rules in the interests of the whole country. To some degree, does one not have to trust the police to exercise a fair discretion and not put everything in writing?

My Lords, the police of course have guidance in writing, but the noble Lord is quite right to say that they have to interpret that guidance in light of the operational circumstances of any case. I am sure that that is what they try to do. Clearly there are tensions in the whole question of the freedom of the press, the need for the police to conduct an investigation and the rights of individuals who may be affected by that. It is that balance that we need to strike.

All good things come to those who wait. This is a much wider problem and it needs to be faced. It is not just the trashing of people’s private lives but also the increasing use of fishing expeditions to invade people’s privacy. Is it not time that the Government said to the press that we need to discuss this in a much more serious way? It is a balance between the rights of reporting and the rights of privacy and how that is dealt with. The Government need to take the lead and maybe put it on the agenda of the next meeting in Downing Street.

My Lords, I think that many of your Lordships would agree with the proposition that there are wider issues involved. Indeed, there are wider categories of people involved, not simply the persons whom we have just been talking about. The Attorney-General wants to look at, first, the question of balance and, secondly, where you draw the line in relation to categories of people.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness say why the Government changed their decision and dropped the proposed anonymity for those accused of rape?

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a question that I cannot entirely answer—I do not have the depth of knowledge. I will seek an answer in writing for her. The Government have certainly been looking at this issue for some time and, in the light of this case, have decided that it needs to be gripped.