Coroner Lifts Ban on Reporting Text Messages

20 10 2010

This post originally appeared on Media Lawyer, the indispensable subscription service from the Press Association covering all aspects of media law.  It is reproduced with permission and thanks.

A ban on the media reporting text messages sent between two of the July 7 suicide bombers which were displayed on screens in the inquest hearing and the media annex was lifted after representations by the Press Association and other media groups.

The Coroner, Lady Justice Hallett, had ordered that the material, which was shown on Thursday last week as Hugh Keith QC, counsel to the inquest, gave details of just two of the messages, should not be reported.  While Mr Keith detailed only two messages, the documents to which he was referring, and all the messages it carried, were shown on the screens in the court and annex.

In the text messages two of the bombers, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Jermaine Lindsay pretended to be Face and B.A. Baracus, two of the US commandos-turned-soldiers of fortune featured in the cult 1980s TV drama The A Team, which was turned into a Hollywood movie this year.

Mr Keith asked the Coroner to ban publication of any messages about which he had not spoken, saying they were not relevant and were not reportable because they were not evidence and would not appear in the transcript of the hearing.

Journalists raised objections at the time, submitting a letter written by Press Association chief reporter Sam Marsden and signed by reporters from the major newspaper and media groups.  The Coroner said she would hear argument on the issue on the following Monday afternoon.

Press Association legal editor Mike Dodd then prepared a written submission arguing that the Coroner had no power to ban reporting of the material was it was clearly made available in open court.  He argued that the court had no common law power to restrict reporting of proceedings in open court, and that the material did not fall within the limits of either of the restrictions which could be made under the Contempt of Court Act 1981.  In addition, the material was clearly relevant to the inquest, and of public interest, as it gave an insight into the bombers’ psychologies and motivations.

Barrister Guy Vassall-Adams, representing the BBC, ITN, BSkyB, Guardian News and Media, The Times, The Sun and Associated Newspapers, which also sought the lifting of the restriction, told the Coroner:

The press is entitled to report anything that is communicated in open court, whether it’s communicated by way of evidence, whether it’s communicated by way of submissions, whether it’s the conduct of a judge,  whether it’s the conduct of a witness, whether it’s something that happens in court, like a disturbance.

“The media is entitled to report all of those matters, and the only matters that the court is empowered to prevent the media reporting …. are those which cause really substantial prejudice to  the administration of justice, and those powers, in this era, are now confined to the Contempt of Court Act 1981 because it’s now well-established by the Privy Council in the Independent Publishing court case, which was referred to by Mr Dodd, that essentially there is no common law power of general application to prevent the media from reporting anything.

The Coroner lifted the ban on reporting the text messages, saying they could be reported by the press and published on the Inquest website.  The inquest is into the deaths of the 52 killed in the attacks in London on July 7, 2005.

Postcript:  Lady Justice Hallett’s brief ruling on this issue is now available on the 7 July Inquest Website.  She said

It is a fascinating line of argument, but I am ever the  pragmatist, given there are so many very important issues in these inquest proceedings. I am persuaded, having seen the text messages for myself, that text messages sent on the operational phones, a record of which appeared on the screen, between some or all of the four men, and particularly the ones in the days leading up to the bombing, are plainly relevant and would be admissible. … I will quash my former ruling and my ruling now is that the document containing the texts may be published on the website and may be published by the press


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20 10 2010
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