Watching the British press mounting the moral high ground is more often amusing than enlightening. Over the past couple of weeks the buzz in journalistic watering holes (alas mainly online, these days) has been on whether court orders barring the publication of details about criminal cases should be obeyed when the facts are widely available online.
Normally in these cases it's the media in England and Wales that is gagged by an injunction or required under s4(2) of the Contempt of Court Act to postpone publication. Meanwhile savvy readers are free to go to sites published outside the jurisdiction for the juicy bits. Anyone remember the celebrity couple and the olive-oil bath?
However England and Wales isn't the only common law jurisdiction where such gagging occurs. Over the past few weeks British media organisations have been grappling with court orders made in New Zealand and Australia in cases that are attracting international attention. Their response raises questions about whether jurisdiction-based reporting restrictions will long survive in democratic societies.
The 'suppression' orders concerned the naming of a man charged with murder in New Zealand and details of a court conviction in Australia pending the outcome of further proceedings. It was interesting to see which bits of the foreign media obeyed. As far as the New Zealand order was concerned, the UK tabloid press seemed largely to ignore it while the BBC obeyed, even on website sections aimed at UK readers. Perhaps the motive was a high-minded Reithian respect for Commonwealth institutions; more likely it was the simple fact that the BBC has easily securable assets, not to mention members of staff, within the jurisdiction.
The Australian case was more interesting because it attracted widespread interest in the US, where first amendment-armed editors generally bristle at judicial reporting restrictions. But even here, while the Washington Post went big on the story, the New York Times complied with the court order. The paper's general counsel admitted this was because of the presence of a bureau in the jurisdiction. 'It is deeply disappointing that we are unable to present this important story to our readers in Australia and elsewhere,' the Washington Post quoted him as saying.
Likewise global wire services the Associated Press and Reuters also did not report the conviction; again out of pragmatism - both have bureaux in Australia and have a duty of care to their local staff. But does this imply that the agencies would respect censorship imposed by any jurisdiction in which they work? And, if not, what are the grounds for selection?
The paradoxical outcome of all this is that some of the world's most trusted purveyors of fact-checked news have handed over coverage of the case to online outlets which may be less interested in impartial fact-gathering than in advancing their own agendas. We saw plenty of this in the conspiracy theories that surfaced when restrictions were placed on reports of the jailing of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon ('Tommy Robinson') earlier this year. It is a worrying development at a time when the 'mainsteam media' is under such attack.
No doubt most Gazette readers will sympathise with court orders made with the aim of keeping jury trials on track. But these two cases, following that of Yaxley-Lennon, must revive calls for juries to be trusted with the facts put in front of them, not on what they pick up from the web.