Before suspects were taken into custody in the July 21st London bombings, the media frenzy was well under way. But immediately after the arrests, civil liberties groups complained that the sensational coverage was jeopardizing the suspects' right to a fair trial. The fact that Fleet Street capitulated to those complaints is largely due to Britain's sub judice law, which allow courts to effectively gag the press. Media attorney David Hooper explains the law to Bob.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Before suspects were taken into custody in the July 21st London bombings, a media frenzy was well underway. But immediately after the arrest, civil liberties groups and human rights lawyers began complaining that the sensational coverage was jeopardizing the suspects' right to a fair trial. Unlike the U.S. press, which gave us the O.J. spectacle and many since, Fleet Street quickly complied. In Britain, sub judice laws allow for the gagging of the press by the courts. David Hooper is a London lawyer specializing in media law. He joins us now. David, welcome to OTM.
DAVID HOOPER: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, what are sub judice laws and how are they applied in Britain?
DAVID HOOPER: Well, once a person is arrested or charged, if you as a journalist do anything which causes a serious risk of substantial prejudice to the trial, you are at risk of being brought before the court and fined. And if the trial has to be abandoned because of some prejudicial revelation, the media organization could face the cost of the trial being abandoned. There could be a six or even seven figure sum.
BOB GARFIELD: And as I understand it, the effect of the sub judice laws is that when a crime is committed, no matter how sensational it may be the London bombings, for example, once someone is arrested, what happens is practically a complete vacuum of information, at least in the print and broadcast press. Is that right?
DAVID HOOPER: What tends to happen is that there's frenzied reporting about the time of arrest. And what happened with these people was that because they were held under the terrorist legislation, they were held for a period of 14 days without being charged. And during that time the press thought that it was open season. The authorities had themselves issued a lot of information appealing for the public to assist a) in identifying who these people were and, b) where they were once they'd been identified.
BOB GARFIELD: There seems to be a paradox that you've [CHUCKLES] observed here that the government first is issuing all sort of potentially prejudicial information about the suspects, and then all of a sudden once an arrest is made the sub judice laws kick in and the press is prohibited from publishing exactly [LAUGHS] that sort of information. But there's also another paradox in that while Fleet Street is prevented from post arrest coverage of the sort that we have seen here in America routinely, they will print a headline that would never show up in an American tabloid because it's deemed potentially libelous. I'm thinking of "Got the Bastards," a gigantic tabloid headline accompanying the arrest of the suspects in the second set of bombings. [LAUGHS] Has anyone there noticed the strange juxtaposition of very inflammatory headlines like that and the total vacuum that follows them?
DAVID HOOPER: Well, it is a British sense of compromise that the press are allowed a certain amount of latitude up to and including the time of arrest. And it's going to be a very long time before the trial takes place; it'll be about 12 months or so. And I think by the time these people come up for trial, that will all have been forgotten.
BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside for a moment the question of whether sub judice laws were ever truly necessary, and now with the Internet and the blogosphere and satellite television, for that matter, Britons are certainly able with a keystroke or two to read anything about any of the suspects or the investigation or the prosecution in any amount of detail they wish. Haven't the, for that reason alone, sub judice laws just utterly outlived their usefulness?
DAVID HOOPER: In a sense, if you're going and looking it up on the computer out of interest, you're doing what under English law you're doing what the judge has asked you not to do, and it's the sort of thing that may not play very well with the other jurors. It's the best way we know. I mean, perhaps we are too strict in not allowing anything to be published, but I think one could really test it oneself, that if one had the misfortune to be tried, I think one would prefer the English system whereby you're tried simply on the evidence and not as a result of strident tabloid publicity.
BOB GARFIELD: Let me ask you one final question. At their core, the sub judice laws strike me as being a little bit paternalistic. Does the British public really need to be told by its government what it can and cannot learn?
DAVID HOOPER: Well, I think you're right. I think juries are much better at disregarding prejudicial material than people give them credit for. Equally, we don't have a responsible tabloid press, and if it is complete "Liberty Hall" they will publish absolutely anything. So we do seem to need a certain amount of regulation because a fair trial is more important than Mr. Murdoch selling a few extra newspapers by headlines like "Got the Bastards."
BOB GARFIELD: All right. Well, David, many thanks.
DAVID HOOPER: Well, it's been a great pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: David Hooper is a London solicitor specializing in media law. [