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Morning Serial; The Death of Justice.

Byline: by Michael O'Brien

New Labour's Jack Straw turned out to be another Michael Howard, going to the appeal court to overturn the decision won by Ian Simms and myself on the ban on journalists interviewing prisoners.

The ban was re-imposed (the secrecy, in other words; so much for the openness Labour had promised) but I wouldn't be beaten. I was going to take it to the House of Lords - or Europe if necessary. And my barrister, Edward Fitzgerald QC, was determined to back me up against the politicians.

However, it would be May 1999 before I was able to return to this issue. I'll always keep fighting. We went to the House of Lords two-and-half years after Ian Simms and I had got access for journalists.

As I say, Mr Justice Latham's ruling had been reversed at the Court of Appeal by Lord Justice Kennedy who decided "a convicted prisoner has no right to communicate orally with the media through a journalist". Now, we had won leave to appeal against that decision - and continue the battle.

This was a hugely important case for the freedom of speech.

The original gagging order had been drawn up in 1964 and meant that journalists could only visit prisoners on the condition that they sign an undertaking not to disclose or publish any information obtained during the visit.

They had, of course, on occasions but the law was against them.

The Home Office argued that the law protected "the legitimate interests of the public, including the victims of crime" and prevented "gratuitous details of a prisoner's offence entering the public domain". It claimed: "There would be serious risk of distress to victims and their families and general public outrage at the sight of prisoners and (journalists) collaborating to publish details of a prisoner's case."

It also maintained that journalists and prisoners could write to one another - but I knew letters get lost and there is no substitute for the face-to-face chat.

At the House of Lords our lawyers said that the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourghad already stated that its duty was to guarantee "not rights that are theoretical or illusory, but rights that are practical and effective". Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights - everyone has the right to freedom of expression, to impart information without interference by public authority - should not exclude prisoners. Prisoners retain all basic rights except those necessarily taken away as a consequence of their imprisonment.

If that right of expression is not to be illusory then it had to encompass the prisoner's freedom to express their views to the media.

There could be no insistence that the journalist makes an undertaking not-to-publish and so deprive the prisoner of their freedom of expression.

Continues on Monday

The Death of Justice is published by Y Lolfa at pounds 9.95. It is available from www.gwales and bookshops
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Dec 20, 2008
Words:483
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