Leading article: There was no public interest in this authoritarian action

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK we said Jack Straw was illiberal and he seems determined to prove us right. His legal action against publication of anything from the official report on the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry was heavy-handed, pointless and wrong. Along with other newspapers, The Independent argued before the judge yesterday that the injunction was an unjustified interference in the freedom of the press, which is one of the guarantors of the freedom of the people.

Yes, it would have been better if the Lawrence family had seen the report first, since it is an analysis of an injustice that was done primarily to them. The fact that the family seem to have no objection to the Sunday Telegraph's report is no defence, although it makes the Home Secretary's position look even more ridiculous.

Yes, it would have been better if the report had been presented, fresh and in full, to the House of Commons (not that New Labour, more leaking than leaked against, shows much sign of understanding that). By their nature, leaks are biased: they are usually intended to present information in a particular light. That is especially important when a report is judicial in character, concerned with pointing the finger of blame.

So Mr Straw was perfectly entitled to do as much as he could to ensure the inquiry's deliberations were secret and its report remained under wraps until Wednesday. The question is what he should have done when he learnt of the leak. There are some cases when it might conceivably be worth going to the courts in an attempt to suppress publication, but conceiving of them is difficult. Parts of the report had appeared in the first editions of the Sunday Telegraph, on one Saturday evening news bulletin, in the foreign press and on the Internet - and much of the substance of the report has appeared in this newspaper over the past two months.

Given that injunctions do not really work, there has to be an overwhelming case for them in the public interest. And in no sense can early publication of the Macpherson report be "profoundly unfair", either to the Lawrences or the police, as the Home Office claimed. But even if it were, the right of a free press to be unfair is a vital safeguard in a democracy. Mr Straw was not engaged in a public-relations exercise to "spin" the publication of this report, but a less scrupulous minister might have been, and the ability of journalists to subvert media manipulation by any government is vital to us all.

We hope the Home Secretary simply acted in haste and irritation, before he realised the pointlessness of his action. And that he will restrain his closed-government, controlling tendencies when he is next faced with newspapers that will not behave like the People's Daily.

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