The debate on freedom of expression: Counting the cost of free speech: Heather Mills and Adam Sage sample opposing views on whether media interviews glamorise 'lifers'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE ROW over the Government's attempt to gag a television interview with Dennis Nilsen, the mass murderer, yesterday re-opened the debate over free speech.

The Home Office, pursuing its policy set out in Prison Rules, argues that his appearance could cause grave distress to his victims' families and would give him a platform to pursue notoriety.

But lawyers and civil rights groups argued that ministers could be in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression.

David Pannick QC, an expert on public law, said: 'It means the Home Office would have to show a pressing social need for any restriction. I can see no good reasons why the general principles of freedom of expression in Article 10 should not apply to prisoners. Freedom of expression often causes distress, inconvenience, and outrage to innocent persons but that is the price we pay for the right to free speech.'

But Professor David Canter, a consultant to the documentary, but who had no involvement in the interview with Nilsen, said yesterday that although he strongly favoured freedom of speech, this was probably the only case where he might side with the Home Office. 'Having seen the film I personally do not believe that it is necessarily in the public interest in that particular case to show this particular interview.'

Elliot Leyton, professor of anthropology at Memorial University in Canada and an expert on serial killers, said he would ban all interviews with psychopaths. The US had more mass murderers - such as Ted Bundy - than any other country, partly because they were 'glamorised' by the media, he said.

In the US, prisoners cannot be stopped from giving interviews to newspapers or radio stations, according to Sandra Coliver, of Article 19, a group that campaigns against censorship. Television companies would have to be granted at least an 'oral interview', although some jails might attempt to ban bulky cameras.

'There have been cases where inmates have had rights to communicate with the press restricted, and the courts have said that is unfair.'

One prisoner claimed to have seen Dan Quayle, the former Vice-President, selling drugs. Faced with a barrage of press calls, the prison prevented him from talking to journalists. Citing the First Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, his lawyers overturned the jail's decision.

Both the French and Dutch ministries of justice said they reserved the right to stop journalists talking to inmates. But in both countries governors would normally give their consent.

In the UK, breaches of the rules are rare. While there are often interviews with less notorious inmates, the rules have usually been enforced against terrorists and other high-profile offenders.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments