On Monday, The New York Times reported new details about the British investigation into the foiled terrorist plot there. But it was the accompanying editor’s note that raised eyebrows in the media. The Times said it was restricting access to the article in Britain because of that country’s strict pre-trial legal code. Brooke talks to Stewart Tendler, crime correspondent for The Times of London, about what the so-called Sub Judice rule means for reporting on terrorism.
BOB GARFIELD:: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. The case against John Mark Karr, briefly the prime suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey murder case, collapsed Monday, but the media circus around him renewed a long-standing debate over the tendency of the media to convict people long before their day in court, ranging from the guilty Scott Peterson to the innocent Wen Ho Lee. Reporters listen to law enforcement officials and usually print what they say. That's how the press works – at least, here in the U.S. On the other side of the Atlantic, it's a little different. The New York Times ran up against that difference this past Monday when it ran a 3,000 word front-page story with a host of new details about the British investigation into the alleged scheme to blow up U.S.-bound planes. In a 50-word editor's note, The Times announced that it would, on the advice of legal counsel, restrict access to the article in Britain because of that country's contempt-of-court act, or Sub Judice rule, as it's often shorthanded. We called Times of London crime defendant Stewart Tendler, who told us that journalists in Britain can report broadly on criminal cases up to and until charges have been brought. But when suspects become defendants, as in the British foiled terror plot, a news blackout is effectively imposed. The 25-year-old law, says Tendler, may be controversial, but it's clear.
STEWART TENDLER: A journalist should not publish anything which would threaten the integrity of the trial. I mean, that's the loosest way of putting it. What you can say after somebody has been charged with a crime is extremely limited. You can say what the charge involves, you can say who they are, you can give their age, their occupation, their address, possible trial date, who might defend them. You can sketch in some of the case against them, but it's very limited.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You're a crime reporter. That's a beat that, I guess, covers everything from dognapping to terrorism. So when you called up the metropolitan police or whatever agencies are involved in the investigation, what sort of information were you able to get?
STEWART TENDLER: Well, it's been very sketchy. Some information came out on the day of the raids. More information came out a little later. After a large number of these suspects were charged, about a week ago, more information came out, but nothing quite as much as the information that's been coming out of the United States. Last year, after the 7/7 bombings, we found it very difficult to get hold of material here, only to discover it was being shown on -- I think it was ABC, courtesy of the NYPD. What happens is that intelligence material is exchanged between the two countries, and in the United States, the FBI, the NYPD and various other people find it very [CHUCKLING] to keep their mouths shut, basically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] So I guess then if you want to write about these things, are you forced to rely on American newspapers for your information, and do you have to source it that way?
STEWART TENDLER: Yes. We have to, in some instances, certainly on the 7/7 case. And what happened was that the NYPD produced material about the bombs that had been found in the car, or portions of a bomb that had been found in a car abandoned by the bombers. For example, that's the sort of material we didn't know about but which the [LAUGHS] Americans did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Because of these laws, The New York Times decided to block access to its article online in Britain, and even withheld the story from the British version of the International Herald Tribune, which is its sister newspaper in Europe. But with relatively little effort, it's pretty easy to find the article elsewhere or hear about it on satellite TV. Do you think that technology has rendered these rules unenforceable?
STEWART TENDLER: I think it makes it much more difficult. I mean, what the judge will often say to a jury at the beginning of a trial is, this is a notorious case. You probably read about it in the newspapers, you probably heard about it on television. Now I want you to close your minds to all of that and just deal strictly with the facts in front of you. And the evidence is that quite often, jurors do, do that. But there is always the risk that jurors will go home in the evening and say, I wonder what's on the Internet on this, and start to come back and find material. So I don't think any newspaper would be very keen on running stuff at the time of a trial that wasn't known to the jury. I mean, if they did, they would be in big trouble, because if the trial was abandoned, the newspaper would pay the costs, which could be hundreds of thousands of pounds.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As we mentioned, there are ways to circumvent, for instance, The New York Times block. In fact, we e-mailed the entire article to you at your Times of London desk so that you could read it. What in the story would you not have been able to print?
STEWART TENDLER: Now, quite a lot of it. The mention of the martyrdom videotapes has been reported over here, but a lot of the other stuff is specific to people who've been charged. References to the purchase of property, things like that, is very detailed. And supposing that's wrong? We've already had situations where the wrong people have been named and photographed in this case. I mean, it's [LAUGHS] fraught with a lot of dangers. So, I mean, no journalist, if anything, wants to affect the course of a trial, especially in a situation as serious as a terrorist case. But I do think that more information could be forthcoming than has been.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Given that sometimes the media are forced to comply with a blackout that could last months or even years, a columnist in the conservative Daily Telegraph just a few days ago argued that these laws were essentially elitist because the media and the politics classes end up knowing a good deal more, even if they can't print it, than the population at large. Do you agree with her? Do you think she has a point?
STEWART TENDLER: I think she's got a point. I don't necessarily agree with her. I'm divided on this as a journalist, because I am extremely frustrated at the amount of information we can't use or can't get hold of. The public [LAUGHS] has a right to know what is going on and has a right to know whether to be scared or not to be scared. But which is more important, that everybody knows what's going on or that somebody gets a fair trial?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stewart, thank you very much.
STEWART TENDLER: Okay.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Stewart Tendler is the crime correspondent for The London Times.