A judge’s request - in the messy real world

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I suspect that some of us working in the local media haven’t understood the depth of the anger of many young people in particular at the publication last week of the addresses of two defendants in a drugs’ case despite a request from judge Barney McElholm for the addresses to be withheld.

Similarly, I doubt that many members of the public fully appreciate that the reason journalists see an imperative to report fully on what happens in court is that freedom of the press has to be defended even when its exercise has unwelcome repercussions for subjects of the reporting.

More broadly, the role of the press in ensuring that justice is seen to be done cannot be sustained if reporting on the operation of the justice system is curbed so as to cover up inconvenient facts which might emerge in court proceedings.

Freedom to report from the courts is ever under pressure from governments and corporate interests citing ‘national security’, ‘commercial confidentiality’ and so forth as reasons for keeping information from the masses. Give way on one front and the principle is compromised generally, runs the argument.

On the other hand, great principles cannot be mere abstractions, but have to be applied in the messy real world. There are circumstances in which it is generally accepted that it’s wrong to ‘name names’. It has not always required court orders to persuade newspapers to decline to identify defendants in rape or incest cases where this would have the effect of identifying the victims.

The circumstances in which these questions arose last week were unusual.

Fears that publication of the addresses of the Derry defendants might help Republican Action Against Drugs track them down for murder are not at all fanciful. What weight is to be attached to that consideration in balancing a judgment whether to tell the world where the two men live?

I have heard it said over the past few days by journalists and lawyers that it would have been better if Barney McElholm had cited the right-to-life provisions of the Human Rights Act and issued an order banning publication of the men’s addresses. Certainly, from the point of view of the press, this would have been convenient, removing an onerous and unasked-for burden.

Then again, “Tell us what to do, judge” is not the most dignified of journalistic stances - apart from the fact that it would leave little room for fighting the judges when, as happens, it becomes necessary to take them on to defend the same freedoms. Journalists have been known to go to prison rather than comply with orders from a judge.

I said on Radio Foyle last week that, while it would have been a close-run thing, I would have come to a different decision in this matter than the decision made by local press and broadcasting outlets. Not everyone in the trade was entirely happy.

Perhaps the RAAD – Not In Our Name event might include a discussion on “The role of the local press in the development of RAAD”? Might be interesting.

What’s in a name?

Incidentally: “RAAD – Not In Our Name”: has there even been an organisation with a stupider name?