Select Committee on Armed Forces Written Evidence

Memorandum from the Newspaper Society

  1.  The Newspaper Society represents the regional newspaper industry. Its members publish around 1,300 regional and local newspaper titles throughout the United Kingdom.

  2.  Many local and regional newspapers have particular and longstanding close local connections with the armed forces and their families, who are part of the local communities served by their titles. They maintain coverage at all times of any issues of particular importance to their forces' readership. In addition, in times of conflict, regional newspaper journalists report the armed forces' activities, as embedded and as independent correspondents. On behalf of the regional press, the Society has a continuing dialogue with the Ministry of Defence on matters such as The Ministry of Defence Green Book: Defence and the Media in Times of Emergency (the practical arrangements for enabling journalists to report on operations, including the MoD's plans for representative numbers of correspondents to accompany British Forces. It also addresses the policy and principles that will facilitate—and may limit—the activities of reporters during operations). There are also of course wider spheres of relevant interests and publication issues, including the DA Notice Committee, whose regional press representatives are nominated by the Society.

  3.  The Society has a particular interest in open justice. It has been involved in many discussions and negotiations over many years with relevant government departments on the scope of prospective reporting restrictions and the media's formal rights of notification, of hearing, of review by the court or tribunal or other forum itself, of judicial review and of appeal that enable formal challenge of the decision to impose reporting restrictions and that enable the reconsideration, variation or lifting of such restrictions.

  4.  In practice, such rights and such review and appeal mechanisms are very important components of open justice and press freedom. Reporting restrictions affect not only straightforward reports of the proceedings of courts, tribunals and disciplinary proceedings but local newspapers' coverage of the surrounding issues and their contacts with those concerned in them. This includes coverage of courts martial. It can prevent or restrict contemporaneous reporting of matters of real public interest at a local, regional, national or international level. It can also affect reporting of importance and interest to its local community, even of such innocuous matters as local parents' contact of their local newspapers before their departure abroad or elsewhere, just to express their concern and their support for their children who are facing courts martial and intention to be near them to show their support for them during the proceedings.

  5.  The Guardian has submitted evidence to the Committee on the reporting restrictions made in the court martial of Fusilier Bartlon in January 2005 and lack of formal appeal procedure available to the media. The Newspaper Society supports The Guardian's submission for amendment of the Armed Forces Bill to restore a mechanism for appeal against reporting restrictions imposed upon courts martial. As that submission sets out, it appears that removal of the power of the High Court to exercise judicial review of a court martial (Supreme Court Act 1981, section 29 as amended by section 23 of the Armed Forces Act 2001) inadvertently also removed the formal means of media challenge of any reporting restriction without any replacement.

  6.  The Newspaper Society would be grateful if the Armed Forces Bill could be amended to restore a right for the media and any person interested to challenge reporting restrictions in courts martial proceedings.

January 2006

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