CNN given go-ahead for live television coverage of Shipman inquiry

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The Independent Online

Doctors and other experts appearing at the Harold Shipman inquiry will have their evidence televised after a ruling that allows film cameras limited access to the proceedings.

A High Court judge in charge of the public inquiry gave the go-ahead yesterday for the international news channel CNN to broadcast live pictures as part of an experimental project.

But Dame Janet Smith, who is investigating the deaths of at least 401 patients of Harold Shipman, the former GP from Hyde, Greater Manchester, said she reserved the right to halt any broadcasting if it disrupts the work of the hearing.

The inquiry rejected arguments made by lawyers for CNN that the Human Rights Act meant that Dame Elizabeth was under an obligation to let cameras film the entire proceedings. Under the terms of the ruling there will be no coverage of any of the lay witnesses whose testimony, Dame Janet said, could be adversely affected by the presence of cameras.

She said: "I now know that most of the remaining witnesses would be extremely reluctant to attend if they were to be subjected to the initial stress of a wider public exposure which would result from broadcasting."

Geoffrey Robertson QC, for CNN, argued at an earlier hearing that freedom of expression and the need for justice to be seen to be done had created broadcasting rights of access.

But Dame Janet said that while she accepted there was a public interest issue she was concerned that the "exposure to a wider publicity" might make witnesses unwilling to co-operate or "affect the validity" of their testimony.

"This is a concern which cannot be properly evaluated unless and until we have experience of how filming the inquiry would work in practice," she said.

All forms of photography are prohibited from courts in England and Wales but public inquiries are outside the scope of this law. There was limited TV coverage of a 1999 inquiry into the deaths of seven passengers in the Southall rail crash, and a small number of Scottish trials have been filmed with the judges' permission.

CNN, which has instructed London solicitors, Finers Stephens Innocent, said it wanted to "shed light" on the inquiry. Tony Maddox, senior vice president for CNN Europe, Middle East and Africa, said: "The Shipman Inquiry is of considerable public interest, not just in the UK but also in many other countries in Europe."

He added: "There are important issues of checks and balances which have transnational implications for the medical profession and the general public alike.

"CNN believes there is a genuine matter of public interest at stake here which would best be served by allowing cameras into the proceedings to shed light on how the standard protection systems failed on this occasion, to ensure that such a situation can never be allowed to recur, either here or elsewhere."

Shipman is serving 15 life sentences for murder.