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Last Updated: Friday, 5 August 2005, 13:28 GMT 14:28 UK
UK silence over bombings deafens

By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

ABC picture of what is said to be an unexploded device found in a London's bomber's car
American TV has been showing crime scene evidence from the UK
The details emerging from sources abroad about the London bombings illustrate yet again the restrictive attitude adopted by the British police and legal authorities.

We have learned that they were made of easily available ingredients and even that they might have been set off by timers on mobile phones, raising the intriguing question as to whether these were suicide bombers at all.

For those who have worked as reporters in the United States, it has come as little surprise that the information has come from there.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) has a team detailed to examine al-Qaeda-type bomb attacks all round the world and they were sent at once to London. Their findings were given to a meeting of security experts.

Reporters were at the meeting and the NYPD said they had the go-ahead from the Metropolitan Police in London - although they later admitted that was an error.

For those who have worked as reporters in the UK, it comes as no surprise that little information is coming out from here.

There have been other examples. On 7 July, the day of the first bombings, the police here were extremely cautious in giving even an estimate of the number of dead for some hours after the attacks.

Crime scene material

I flew in from Mexico City that day at about two o'clock and was told that only three people had died. Yet Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who was visiting London, was already giving a much higher and, as it turned out, not inaccurate figure based on what he had been told by the British authorities.

The UK's paternalistic Contempt of Court law is out of step with democratic times
Heather Brooke
Your Right To Know

Then there were the photos of the insides of bombed carriages and of the nail bombs left in the bombers' car at Luton. These first appeared on the American network ABC and were presumably obtained from American sources.

As we know, the British have been telling the US a great deal. Scotland Yard asked the British media not to use them on the grounds that they could impede inquiries and prejudice a prosecution. Eventually, however, the media in this country did use them, arguing that they were by then in the public domain.

The police did not explain why inquiries might be hindered but one can guess at one reason. Police often keep quiet about items found at crime scenes in the hope that a suspect refers to them, thereby indicating his or her presence at that scene.

Often the media are happy to comply with police requests. They kept to a news blackout on the day when the 21 July suspects were arrested in London.

And then there are the reported statements coming from the suspect held in Rome, Osman Hussain, who is also known, we learned from Italian police, as Hamdi Issac.

His Italian lawyer has released far more detailed information than would normally be the case if a suspect were arrested in the UK.

Fair trial

The British caution is governed by two factors. One is a law and the other is an attitude.

The law is the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

This bans the publication of material which creates a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced, in particular legal proceedings that are "active" at the time of the publication, and regardless of any intent to do so.

This basically means that once a suspect has been arrested, most information about him or her or anything beyond the bare details of the crime is simply banned.

The thinking is that only a jury should hear such evidence. Otherwise jury members - or indeed potential witnesses - might be "contaminated" or "prejudiced" by what they have heard or seen before they get to the courtroom.

This law explains why, in British criminal cases, the background is only fully revealed by the media after the verdict has been given.

It does not, of course, apply if a suspect dies, which is why so much has come out about the bombers who did die.

No limits

In the United States and many other countries, there is no such restriction. The media will reveal details immediately, as they did about the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, and the Washington sniper, John Allen Muhammad, for example.

The American press and courts guard the right to report very strongly and it is even written into the first amendment to the constitution: "Congress shall make no law... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

This does not allow absolute licence because there are often competing rights from other quarters, but it is a powerful incentive.

The US courts deal with the problem of possible prejudice by questioning juries in advance, but mainly by trusting them to take decisions on what they hear in the evidence, not what they hear in the media.

One problem for the future is the internet. It knows no borders and information on the internet often contravenes the British law of contempt. Can the law survive in such an environment, in which case will new ways of protecting the accused have to be found?

'Blanket of secrecy'

The other issue in the UK is attitude. There is a basic assumption by many British public bodies that the public does not need to know and that therefore the public will not be told.

Information, often of an innocent or harmless sort, is often hidden under a blanket of secrecy.

It is easier to block all information than to work out which bits might "seriously" impede or prejudice a trial.

Heather Brooke, a campaigner for greater openness who has worked in the United States as reporter herself, runs a British group called Your Right to Know.

In an article in The Independent newspaper she said: "That the police and judges want to stifle this lifeline to information shows the extent to which the UK's paternalistic Contempt of Court law is out of step with democratic times."

Ms Brooke went on: "No-one doubts the right of a defendant to have a fair trial, but it must be balanced against the law-abiding public's right to be kept informed and the victim's right to justice.

"Where empirical studies have been done - in the US for instance, where there are no such contempt of court laws - the evidence is overwhelming and all points in one direction: media exposure has no effect on a juror's decision."

Now jurors would say that wouldn't they?

But it is time, perhaps, for a debate to be held. And the way that information has been coming out following the London bombs could speed up that process.


Your comments:

The more we know, the less our perceptions can be managed
John Farmer, Henley-on-Thames, UK
The UK government's estimated death toll numbers of the July 7th London bombs were kept low for hours to stop panic spreading. This could be described as necessary and helpful or manipulation of the facts depending on your viewpoint. Labour has gained a reputation for 'spin' due to their belief in the old adage: "perception is reality". The more we know, the less our perceptions can be managed.
John Farmer, Henley-on-Thames, UK

I believe we have it right in the US. It might be for purely commercial reasons to sell more advertising spots, but, in the long haul, an open society starts with an open government. Most of the discussion above was restricted to obvious criminal activities. Who will police this definition of "criminal activity"? Who decides? I am afraid, that is too much power to hand off to an individual or group of individuals.
Vasu Ganti, Los Altos, CA, USA

Information helps me to manage and process my fear. An information void would leave no boundaries to my imagination when estimating the risks each day, living and working in London.
Ruth, London, UK

Freedom of information laws assist the accused as well as the public. If the government can whisk people away and then stop papers from reporting the event, the government can contravene the rights of the accused. Similarly, keeping justice in the public eye means public outrage can be marshalled against abuses in the system.
Jeff, Cambridge, MA, USA

I think our police did the right thing by keeping details away from people so nobody sees how easy it really is. I think it was irresponsible of US news networks and the NYPD to give so many details out. I certainly hope the Met will think twice before letting the US police and press having so much access. They have caused more trouble than good.
Alex Graham, Coventry, UK

Just ask yourself: if you were innocent, would you rather be tried in the UK or the USA?
Glyn Davies, Farnham, UK

The law is right in Britain. The amount of information released in the Italian press about Hamdi Issac belongs in a courtroom and due process, not in the public domain or it's likely to result in hasty judgements. It's far too important and sensitive. Though global communications will, undoubtedly, put an end to Britain's law eventually.
Ed, Rome, Italy

The American public would rather that government err on the side of being more open
Ed Harris, Fairfax, Virginia, USA
In the US public safety officials must always walk a narrow path which protects the integrity of an investigation, while balancing a need to provide vital information which could protect the public, while respecting our freedom of the press. Our local government methods of vetting emergency public information isn't perfect, but most of the time we do fairly well. The American public would rather that government err on the side of being more open and providing more information, than to revert back to the Nixon-era cloak of secrecy.
Ed Harris, Fairfax, Virginia, USA

Former RAF, I am opposed to any loosening of the information restrictions. Such action merely plays into the hands of the enemy and would allow the UK public to become more like Americans - given to emotion rather than thought.
Ian, Stevensville, USA

The lack of information of this nature prior to a trial is not so much about public interest as public curiosity. There is no right to know about such things, and the dangers of over-disclosure are clear. In this case, I don't see how knowing the type of explosives and detonators benefits the public. Whose lives are actually affected by not knowing this information? That isn't clear to me.
David Evans, Southampton, UK

The reporting here in the States is nothing to do with 'freedom' or 'the right to know' but is purely for commercial purposes. To enthral an audience with sordid details, endless speculation, innuendo and unfounded accusations in order to sell commercial break time. The British have it about right. Details about the crime, or the suspects, should not be made available until after the verdict. This is the only way to get a fair trial for those accused.
Steve Wilkins, Richmond, VA, USA

I believe the self-restraint used by the British authorities in dealing with the London bombings and, may I add, also the honesty with which they admitted - and apologised for - the tragic mistake made in conjunction with the killing of the Brazilian plumber a few days later should set an example for police and governmental authorities the world over. I could not agree more with Steve Wilkins of Richmond, VA, USA: American - and, alas, Italian commercial - networks are merely interested in selling commercial break time. It is no coincidence that important but less appalling news like the leakage of the Downing Street memo were dealt with only cursorily in Italy and totally ignored in the US.
Claudio Olmeda, Rome, Italy




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