Lords restore media access to prisoners

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A HOME OFFICE blanket ban on convicted prisoners talking to journalists investigating possible miscarriages of justice was unlawful, the House of Lords decided yesterday. Five law lords overruled a Court of Appeal decision that a prisoner had no right to an oral interview with a journalist who might want to take up his case.

"The criminal justice system has been shown to fallible," said Lord Steyn. "Yet the effect of the judgment of the Court of Appeal is to outlaw the safety valve of effective investigative journalism." Lord Hoffmann said prison regulations "do not authorise a blanket restriction which would curtail not merely the prisoner's right of free expression, but its use in a way which could provide him with access to justice". The law lords allowed appeals by two lifers.

The ban was introduced in 1995 by former Home Secretary Michael Howard who said the interviews would undermine the discipline and control essential in prison. Last night a Prison Service spokesman said the intention had been to prevent prisoners talking "gratuitously" about their crimes, to the distress of victims. New procedures would be drawn up but he said journalists and prisoners would be likely to have to sign an agreement to discuss only matters relating to a possible miscarriage of justice. Under the previous ban, journalists had to sign an agreement that none of the information would be used for publication or broadcast. For most journalists, this made the visit unworthwhile.

The legal challenge was brought by Ian Simms, convicted of murder in 1989. Simms had been visited at Full Sutton jail by journalist Bob Woffinden, who wrote about his case and his concern that Simms had been wrongly convicted. The second complainant, Michael O'Brien, convicted of murder and robbery in 1988, contacted Karen Voisey of BBC Wales, who visited him at Long Lartin. Prison authorities told the journalists to sign an undertaking that any material from the interviews would not be published. Both refused and no further visits were allowed.

The Court of Appeal ruled in 1997 that the loss of a prisoner's freedom of expression was part of his sentence. He could correspond with journalists, but visits were confined to lawyers, relatives and friends.

Yesterday Lord Steyn said the restrictions were "exorbitant in width insofar as they would undermine the fundamental rights invoked by the prisoners". He said the Lords had details of some 60 cases over 10 years where journalists helped identify miscarriages of justice, leading to the quashing of convictions.

Mrs Marie McCourt, whose daughter Helen was murdered by Simms, said: "Imprisonment means not only the deprivation of liberty but the right to lead a normal life.

"Prisoners should not have the privilege of contact with journalists or authors through whom they can publicise either their cases or attitudes and opinions whether it be for monetary gain or to boost their egos and self esteem."