Reporting restrictions have been lifted - by the Internet

THE INTERNET computer networks and satellite TV news are posing a growing threat to the traditional reporting restrictions usually applied in British trials and other legal proceedings.

The problem was thrown into relief during the recent Rosemary West committal proceedings, when news reports of the evidence which were meant only for overseas readers "leaked" back into the country on a computer network.

The hearings, in Dursley, Gloucestershire, ended last Tuesday with Mrs West being sent for trial charged with 10 murders and four sex offences. Her solicitor says that she maintains her innocence.

Reporting restrictions were not lifted during the hearings, which meant that none of the evidence presented could be published or broadcast in Britain for fear of prejudicing potential jurors and thus making it impossible for Mrs West to have a fair trial.

But the case was reported abroad, where British laws on contempt of court and prejudice do not apply, and the legal authorities became alarmed when a reliable, professional account of the evidence was posted on a commercial service carried on the Internet and available in Britain.

The court issued a series of ever-tighter orders aiming to prevent this, invoking two separate acts of Parliament "to avoid the substantial risk of prejudice to the administration of justice".

In addition, Irish newspapers were warned that they were being closely watched, and those which did report the hearings ensured that no coverage of the case appeared in editions sold in Britain.

The legal authorities are satisfied that on this occasion they were able to contain the threat of leakage, but the case rang alarm bells. Newspapers may still respect national frontiers, but news agencies, the Internet and satellite television by definition supply the same news to many countries at once; can they, will they, respect national laws?

"It is recognised that this is going to be a problem," said one government legal official last week. "For this particular case we achieved our objectives, but we are keeping an eye on this issue."

In the same way that the fax brought the Camillagate tape transcript into Britain and made nonsense of a national newspaper blackout reminiscent of the 1930s abdication crisis, so computer networks and satellite could broadcasting make nonsense of the contempt laws.

"The Internet is wide open to this sort of thing. It only takes one person to copy something into the network from a newspaper in the United States," says Stephen Bates, an academic lawyer in Washington DC who follows freedom of speech issues. "While it might be possible to make this more difficult, I think the only way to be sure of stopping it would be to unhook the whole of Britain from the Net."

The law is lagging behind technology. A British lawyer working in the media field points out: "The legislation in this field dates from the early 1980s at the latest. How far has the computer come in that time? It's just not the same world."

Canada, which has some similar laws to prevent prejudice, has already experienced the power of the Internet. In 1993 a court in Ontario imposed a news blackout on the murder trial of a woman called Karla Homolka, only to find the evidence appearing on computer bulletin boards and on television news reports emanating from the United States.

That this has not happened in a British trial does not mean it could not happen. Imagine a court case involving royalty, or a film star or some other international celebrity. A suspect is charged and the British media observe the usual rule of remaining silent until the trial, but a host of questions would arise for the international media.

Would Internet users be so discreet? Would continental European television stations (many of which are carried on British cable or satellite services) wait for the trial before putting the details on air? How would CNN, Sky News and the BBC World Service Television News handle the competition abroad? In short, could British law dictate to the world media?

These questions would not arise in the United States, where the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, ensures that the media enjoy great latitude in the coverage of criminal investigations and trials. There, as seen in the current O J Simpson case, exhaustive jury selection procedures are meant to sift out potential jurors whose attitudes have become prejudiced.

Nick Braithwaite, a media expert with the law firm Clifford Chance, believes this country may have to follow suit.

"Under our system the whole of the public is deprived of information so that 12 jurors are not influenced," he said. "The Internet breaks that down. Eventually, we are going to have to put more emphasis on jury selection - or else there will have to be trial by judges and not juries."

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