In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s “The World This Weekend” Peter Clarke who was the National Coordinator for Terrorist Investigations until about 18 months ago has suggested that the current rules on contempt of court may hinder counter-terrorist work and certainly make it harder for the public to understand what is going on. (I am not sure what was gained in public understanding by recording the first part of the interview in the street outside the Old Bailey, but then I’m just a listener, so what do I know … )
Peter Clarke was supported by former Attorney-General, Lord Peter Goldsmith, who said reviewing the legislation would be timely, while recognising the importance of ensuring that those arrested could get a fair trial.
There are real issues at the moment in terms of how public confidence in police actions in addressing terrorism may be maintained, if no public explanation of why a high-profile raid has taken place until all relevant Court proceedings have concluded possibly as much as three or for years later.
This was one of the issues that emerged in the major consultation exercise that I led on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Authority three years ago and which culminated in the publication of “Counter Terrorism: The London Debate“.
The report concluded:
“It is critically important that the MPS continues
in relation to its counter-terrorist work to find
innovative ways to communicate important
factual information to the public before an
incident, as an incident unfolds, and afterwards.
In the absence of official information, rumour
will always thrive. Maximum safe information
must therefore be communicated by the police
to scotch such rumour, and thereby to limit
misunderstanding. Only in possession of the key
facts can the public make up its own mind in an
informed way as to whether a particular police
action is appropriate and proportionate.
Improved arrangements for the disclosure of
information on counter-terrorism matters by the
police to the public through the press are
urgently required. Current legal constraints
around pre-trial reporting prevent the police
from issuing information at their disposal,
thereby creating an information vacuum, which
is invariably filled by unsubstantiated public
accounts, resulting in damaging scepticism of
counter-terrorism operations within
communities. It is therefore time to revisit the
law on sub judice (matters under trial or being
considered by a judge or court). Whilst the legal
system must protect the rights of all individuals
to a fair trial, the police need to command
public confidence in order to do their difficult
counter-terrorist work, and this is made much
more difficult by restrictions imposed upon their
ability to share information with the public
about that work.”