Press freedom is crucial in dealing with terrorism

Lord Carlile

I have great regard for Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu, who is a very good counter-terrorism officer, but I regret that a senior police officer in his position has entered into a debate with the media about its reporting of terrorism.

We should remind Mr Basu that the police use the media a great deal, and that they are reliant on the goodwill of the media to resolve crimes and to warn people of dangers. Responsible media also have the right to make an ethical decision within the Editors’ Code of Practice as to what they should publish.

The Prime Minister of New Zealand has been very dignified in saying that she is not going to name the perpetrator of the Christchurch attack. But refusing to name perpetrators is not helpful. People need to know who these dangerous people are — to be able to avoid them, and to know when they read something they say, it should not be trusted.

The use of anonymity, and then actors, in reporting Northern Ireland terrorism during the Troubles is now recognised as a serious mistake, and we should not go down that road again.

The inference that the police should have some kind of control over what is published by the media makes most parliamentarians shudder because it transgresses our understanding of the different roles of the various institutions and the separation of powers.

My own view is that the media should exercise discretion. For example, I question whether it was wise to publish the New Zealand attacker’s manifesto, because it might be misused by people who are less than rational. But that should be dealt with by the Independent Press Standards Organisation or a change in the Editors’ Code.

Blaming all the media for the occasional excesses of some is to lump them all together unfairly. That is not justified. Investigative journalists have made a great contribution to the exposure of matters such as MPs’ expenses and several paedophile stories, and have a proud record over many decades.

The written press have made a significant contribution to the understanding of terrorism. I do not believe, for example, that many of the Acts of Parliament on which the police rely on to control terrorism would have been enacted if the media had not reported incidents fairly fully. In measuring proportionality between the power of the state and the unrestrained freedom of the individual, the media play an important role in helping the public decide what is right and required, and what is wrong and disproportionate.

It would be very difficult to have that debate without the extensive information provided by the media. Sometimes the language is hyperbolic, sometimes the language is excessive, and no doubt what Mr Basu has said will make some journalists reflect on the language they use. But the reporting they do is absolutely essential in most instances.

  • Lord Carlile of Berriew is a former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation