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Lord Thomas of Gresford: In supporting these amendments, I must declare that as chairman of an independent radio company I have some responsibility for news gathering and broadcasting. The fundamental and basic principle is that there should be a fair and open trial subject to public scrutiny by the press and the public. From that base, one begins to consider restrictions on that principle.
My experience of being engaged in a lengthy trial in which screens were used to screen witnesses and part of the proceedings were heard in camera convinced me that only in the most exceptional cases should there be restrictions placed upon the press. In the particular case that I have in mind, the result was followed by damaging rumour and speculation in the press through to the culmination of the appeal processes. On reflection, it was not in the public interest that there should be restrictions of that kind.
The Bill deals with the protection of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses. Except in the most exceptional circumstances, those witnesses can be safely protected without preventing public scrutiny by the press and the media of what is said while they are giving evidence.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: I am always grateful to have advice from the Guild of Editors. As I said earlier, one of my amendments resulted from its representations. We have a good record of paying careful attention to editors' interests and those of the broadcast media, as we can demonstrate by virtue of what was formerly
I entirely agree that it is not right to exclude the press from proceedings simply because they may be embarrassing to public figures. The noble Lord may be interested to know that I am meeting representatives of the print media in the next few days and, as always, I am happy to see representatives of the broadcast media. If there is any sensible way forward by way of amendment either to Clause 24 or to the other clauses with which the noble Viscount dealt--I do not chide him at all because he was developing a theme that concerns later provisions--I am more than ready, as always, to see whether we can safeguard all legitimate interests.
On the specific amendments, which have a much tighter function, the purpose of the screen or the use of the live link is to reduce stress. They save the witness from having to see the defendant. The screens can also be used to avoid sight lines from the public gallery. That is very important. Very often, the brute intimidation of witnesses, simply by people sitting in the public gallery, is extremely effective, even if they do nothing but sit there mob-handed. The use of neither the live link nor the screen is intended to prevent anyone in the court hearing the evidence; nor from seeing the witness if the court thinks that it is practical and desirable.
Clauses 22 and 23 provide a list of those participants who must be able to see as well as hear the witness, even if no one else can. That does not include the defendant--although the court may include the defendant--but it includes the judge, the magistrates, the jury (if there is one), and at least one legal representative for each party. We think it essential that they should be able to see the witness, to test the evidence and decide what weight to give it. We also think that an interpreter or intermediary, or anyone else recognised by the court as being there to assist or support the witness, should be able to be in eye contact with him or her.
These amendments seek to ensure that there should be a presumption that representatives of the media should be able to see the witness when a screen is used, and that they should have a right to be able to watch a witness giving evidence via a live link. It may well be desirable for the press to see as well as hear the witness giving evidence. Sometimes it will be possible, depending on the court layout and the nature of the equipment being used. They will always be able to hear what is being said.
However, I am not convinced at present that it is in the interests of justice that these clauses should specifically provide for the press. Court lay-out is very important. Obviously we have inherited an estate, which means that many courts are suitable while others are not as regards the flexibility that one needs. It may not be possible to arrange for the representatives of the media or the public to see the witness or the live link unless the facilities in the court permit this. It is not an easy question. I put this to the noble Viscount rhetorically--and I do not even invite him to write to me: would he
I should point out to the Committee that news agencies are covered as representatives of the media. Magazine journalists and those writing books could be excluded because of the exclusion provision for members of the public.
Clause 24 may require the press to be excluded from the court while the witness's evidence is being given. However, that power can only be used where it is determined by the court both that a witness is eligible for "special measures" and that this particular measure is needed to improve the quality of evidence provided to the court, leading to the consequence that the court decides that a particular group or groups of people should be excluded from the court while the witness gives all or part of the evidence. That would be an exclusion for that part of the trial only.
Clause 24 is drafted with a reference to people rather than various galleries or parts of the court, like the public gallery or the press box. So the court does have flexibility to decide which groups of people should be excluded. It might be someone who was not a member of the family of the witness or of the defendant. In the case of a racial attack, it may be members of the public who have proclaimed themselves to be part of a racially motivated group; indeed, it could mean anyone other than members of the press. Alternatively, members of the press could be allowed to stay in the public gallery while others would be required to leave.
In certain circumstances--for example, in a distressing sexual case--the court may wish to exclude everyone, including the press, for that part of the evidence. The court may do so not to stop reporting but simply to allow the witness to give evidence in private without the presence of spectators. The court is already required to specify which people it wishes to exclude when making a direction under Clause 24. It will already have to consider whether this should or should not include the press.
I am not persuaded of the need for these amendments, although I recognise that what the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, have been speaking about goes beyond the narrow confines of the amendments. They are contending on principle that justice ought to be published and ought to be capable of being reported. I certainly believe that to be a fundamental principle, though in some circumstances, which should be as limited as possible, there may have to be restrictions. Of course, there is at present a derogation from that principle.
I believe that a useful way forward is to indicate to the Committee that discussions have already taken place between representatives of the press and broadcast media and officials in the Home Office. From my memory, that was Wednesday of last week. Moreover, I have already arranged a further appointment with officials and representatives of the print media and myself within the next few days. I reiterate that I am perfectly happy, as always, to see representatives of the broadcast media again.
It is most important that we do not fetter the free press; but it is equally important that we pay careful attention to the needs of those who are vulnerable. My mind is open. I cannot guarantee that we will achieve a compromise that is satisfactory to those whom I regard as friends and colleagues in the press or, indeed, to the principles put forward by noble Lords. However, this is a useful marker. I recognise what the noble Viscount said; namely, that he was using these proceedings as an occasion--quite rightly--to develop a wider theme. I shall also pay careful attention to what he said on the wider themes. I hope that we can work together and bring something forward. I repeat: I actually believe in a free press.
Viscount Astor: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply. I apologise to the Committee for straying slightly beyond the narrow confines of my amendment. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the Minister for dealing with that aspect. There are different issues about reporting restrictions with which we will deal when we come to Clauses 43 and 44. Indeed, having read carefully what the Minster said today, we on this side of the Committee will have to consider what amendments we wish to table in that respect.
Perhaps I may make a few points as regards the amendments now before us. I accept that there is a difference between what one might call the press and the public--indeed, perhaps what one might describe as the press and a hostile public. There is a difference between the two. As the Minister said, it may be desirable for the public gallery of a court to be closed because it is regarded as hostile to the witness due to the composition of those who are there. I do not necessarily believe that that means that members of the press should be excluded. One does not necessarily follow the other because there are different circumstances involved.
The Minister asked me rhetorically how many members of the press should be present and whether two would be enough. It is possible that two would be enough. As I am sure the Minister knows better than I, if, for example, members of the Press Association or a similar organisation are present, the transcript or the result of the proceedings are then available to the public at large and, indeed, to the rest of the press.
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