Monday, May 20, 2024
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A new front in the attack on free speech


IN yesterday’s Times, it was reported that the Attorney-General had sent an advisory note to editors in which she warned about the reporting of the allegations against Russell Brand. 

In an article headed ‘Attorney-general is showing contempt for press freedom’ Sean O’Neill wrote, this was a grave misunderstanding of contempt of court laws: ‘Victoria Prentis KC, both a cabinet minister and the government’s primary legal adviser, wished “to amplify the importance of not publishing any material where there is a risk that it could prejudice any potential criminal investigation or prosecutions”. “Publishing this material,” she added, “could amount to contempt of court.” Anyone with even the sketchiest knowledge of how the media works surely knows that every single word of reporting on Brand has been rigorously scrutinised before publication. And one of the many things looked at is whether there is a contempt issue . . .

‘I have always understood that contempt of court “bites” when proceedings are active (ie there has been a summons, an arrest or a charge). There have been no arrests in this case. No one has been interviewed by detectives. There are no active proceedings that can be prejudiced. The attorney-general is either poorly informed about the law of contempt or has taken it upon herself to issue a thinly veiled threat intended to have a chilling effect on reporting of the Brand allegations . . .

‘Prentis’s intervention is a shocking overreach. It is not her job to tell reporters to stop reporting on issues where there is merely the “potential” for criminal proceedings. It is the job of reporters to uncover misconduct and wrongdoing, to gather evidence that could lead to criminal trials. What will she do next? Curtail all reporting of crime and criminal justice? Or is she only concerned with cases involving celebrities?

‘The Law Commission is proposing to ban reporters from the trials of alleged sex offenders. Secret arrests? Secret trials? And now a government threat to curb investigative journalism.’

TCW believes that, though ironic given the MSM’s uncritical stance over other free speech matters, it is shocking that editors would be issued such a warning. 

As O’Neill says, ‘the attorney-general’s censorious warning has no basis in law. She should withdraw it immediately.’

TCW believes he is correct. In fact this is not only an attack on a ‘respectable’ newspaper but part of a broader assault on freedom of speech – not to mince words, censorship, whether Ofcom and the all-encompassing remit of the Online Harms Bill, or demonetising less established outlets such as TCW, or MPs demanding social media platforms remove the content of people such as Brand, who however odious has not been convicted of any crime let alone charged with one. 

Indeed, slapping the labels fascist and ‘conspiracy theorist’ on anyone who challenges the establishment narrative whether on lockdowns, climate change, or gender theory is another form of attack on freedom of speech, designed to have a chilling effect on debate and comment. 

NB to the Times: You really cannot get on your high horse about being targeted by the government and not say anything about all the other attacks on free speech.

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Edited by Kathy Gyngell

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