Further to my last two posts on the MPs’ expenses scandal and the role of the press in exposing and reporting it, I noticed the report in today’s Guardian of contempt proceedings brought against the Times newspaper and the foreman of a jury that sat in 2007. The foreman spoke to the paper about how he disagreed with the verdict reached by jurors in a manslaughter case.
Two judges, sitting at high court in London, ruled that the jury foreman and Times Media, the News International subisidiary that publishes the Times, broke laws forbidding disclosure of “the secrets of the jury room” after the newspaper published an article on 19 December, 2007, outlining how two jurors questioned the verdict and the role played in the trial by complicated evidence from expert medical witnesses.
Part of the defence argument was as follows (and I quote the article directly):
However, the foreman should not have disclosed the approach taken to the evidence by other jurors, [said Lord Pill].
[He] added that the “robust and highly valued” jury system depended on the open and frank expression of views between 12 people in the secrecy of the jury room, without fear that a juror’s possibly unpopular opinions might become known to his or her friends and neighbours or the public at large.
The defendants had argued that contempt proceedings could not be justified in the light of article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of expression subject to exceptions such as the need to maintain the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
In addition, the defence argued it was essential that the press had a wide right to tell the public what happened in court proceedings.
Two arguments, then: (a) the right to freedom of expression and (b) the ‘right’ of the press to tell the public…
Clearly, the judges believe that others involved in the process also have a right to be protected. They further seem to believe that the press does not have an unlimited ‘right’ to tell the public whatever it likes. Transparency does not mean total exposure. The cost of such breaches of trust (against jurors who need to deliberate within the security of being able to express views and, possibly, change their mind) might well be that jurors will not articulate what is on their mind – even if that expression might possibly prove vital to the deliberation – for fear that confidentiality will not be protected.
The question here is (again) about unintended consequences of an erosion of trust, exposed by, but also promoted by the behaviour of, the media.
This is a fine line and a contentious argument to open up. But the press are so influential in our culture that the question needs to be laboured for the good of our common life and the protection of ‘rights’ on all sides.
The Times was found guilty in this case while also having its argument treated fairly and the integrity of its decision (to publish) recognised. However, the fines that might have to be paid cannot repay the loss of trust and anguish of those who felt compromised by the decision to publish.
Whose rights trumps whose in a society that is in danger of losing any boundary between what is appropriately private and what is necessarily public?