ICE blogs

June 27, 2014

Justice has been done, actually!

Filed under: Uncategorized, Blogroll, News, ethical space editors blog, Headlines — news_editor @ 1:16 pm

Media legal expert Barry Turner reflects on the Hackgate verdicts

The verdicts in the hacking trial have already started to create a stir in the ‘street of shame’ and condemnation, counter-condemnation and innuendo are appearing in varying degrees in the corporate press. Before we consider the level of seriousness we should attach to any of the Fleet Street gossip, sniping and triumphalism it is important to remember one thing. The defendants were tried in a public court where they were entitled to a full and costly defence, they were tried by their peers sitting on a jury and it was by that time-honoured and fair system of justice that they were found either guilty or not guilty.

There are now two major issues both of a legal nature worthy of serious consideration: firstly, the trial judge has heavily criticised Prime Minister David Cameron for his comments about Andy Coulson (the former News of the World editor and communications chief at No. 10 Downing Street found guilty of conspiracy to hack phones) while the jury were still deliberating on two of the counts he was tried on. This is nothing short of contempt of court and the publication of his purely partisan comments should be referred to the Attorney General. Cameron is perhaps lucky that the jurors had been unable to reach a verdict on these counts rather than his intervention making such a verdict unsafe.

Secondly, the comments of Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of the Sun, represent a different kind of contempt for both our system of justice and for the high quality journalism that first brought these cases to light. Kavanagh has openly decried the Crown Prosecution Service for bringing the charges and compares the case to that of the failed celebrity sex cases of recent months. This is rather an odd comparison and indicates a scant knowledge of the law which seems to have afflicted rather too many of News International’s editors.

Significant evidence existed about the phone hacking and it was perfectly proper for the CPS to bring charges against those now acquitted. The evidential and public interest tests were more than adequately met and to suggest that the press has been subjected to a witch-hunt is absurd. Where crimes are allegedly committed and evidence is available, then it is in the public interest to prosecute in an open court.

The post mortem on these verdicts is likely to last weeks. Many are unhappy that several of the defendants were acquitted especially after their vilification by the media since the scandal erupted. The lawyers for the principal defendant frequently complained about this and suggested she was unable to get a fair trial. Yet it is a clear vindication of our criminal justice system that they were wrong about that. Rebekah Brooks, former Sun editor and chief executive of News International, was on trial for what she was alleged to have done, not for what she might be in the eyes of many. The jury were not convinced by the evidence against her and she is rightly acquitted.

We are approaching the 800th anniversary of the foundation of the jury system in English law. It is a system that is often criticised and often wrongly judged itself. It is, nevertheless, a system in which the accused is innocent until proven guilty to the highest standards of evidence. It is a system where the accused may face their accuser, where they may test the evidence of the prosecution to breaking point and it is one where ordinary people using ordinary judgment decide on guilt. Not governments, not presidents, not the army and certainly not the press.

Where the prosecution cannot come up to the very high standard of proof it is right to say that the defendant is not guilty. That should not, however, be the basis for the rather ludicrous position adopted by some in the media that because a trial fails it should not have been brought in the first place.

Parts of Fleet Street can now spend the next few weeks on the one hand gloating over the acquittals and carping on about heavy-handed policing and prosecutions and on the other hand suggesting (ever so subtly ) that the verdicts may be wrong. If they can spare a few moments away from their smug satisfaction or their ‘righteous indignation’ they may want to consider the verdicts in an Egyptian court just two days earlier. Then, two al-Jazeera journalists were jailed – one for seven years, the other for ten years – for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Such verdicts might make British journalists focus on what the word justice actually means.

Barry Turner is a Senior Lecturer in Media Law at Lincoln School of Journalism and the Centre for Broadcasting and Journalism at
Nottingham Trent University

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