War-time censorship provides lessons for media freedom today

The UK needs a more coherent system of managing information in matters of national security, and should balance security with maximum media freedom, says Leeds Beckett researcher Dr Henry Irving.

The need to improve existing systems is highlighted by this week’s Court of Appeal decision on reporting restrictions during the trials of Erol Incedal and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar in 2014-15. The England and Wales Court of Appeal ruled that the controversial and highly-publicised reporting restrictions will not be lifted.

Drawing on his research into the workings of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information, Dr Irving maintains that the heavy-handed and ad hoc treatment of the media during the case echoed Second World War censorship at its worst.

He has teamed up with Dr Judith Townend, Director of the Information Law and Policy Centre at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, to call for a coherent system of information control, based on clear national security guidelines and a relationship of trust and collaboration both with the media and other interested parties.

“We can learn lessons from how censorship was handled during the Second World War – both good and bad – to help us strike the right balance today between national security and the public interest,” says Dr Irving.

“Although there were many difficulties in the relationship between military authorities, the Ministry of Information and the media during the early days of the war, by 1942 a spirit of ‘friendly co-operation’ had grown up between censors and journalists, making it easier to manage a voluntary system that relied on trust. Unfortunately, that kind of trust appears to be in short supply in 2016.”

The terrorism-related trials of defendants Erol Incedal and Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar were originally to be held totally in private, with the media and public excluded. However, following an appeal by a consortium of media organisations, the rules were slightly relaxed in an unusual arrangement.

A handful of ‘accredited’ journalists were allowed to attend some of the private hearings, although they still could not report on the proceedings and had to leave their notebooks locked in a safe.

Journalists complained of heavy-handed treatment and following the re-trial of Incedal, in which he was acquitted of preparing an act of terrorism, the media outlets went to the Court of Appeal to ask for restrictions to be lifted so they could report parts of the private sessions they had attended.

The England and Wales Court of Appeal ruled this week that the controversial and highly-publicised reporting restrictions in the trial will not be lifted, despite the media’s contention that maintaining secrecy of core issues was no longer, if it had ever been, justified.

“It is sometimes legitimate to withhold information from the public in the interests of national security, but only where this is strictly necessary and when safeguards exist to maintain open justice and freedom of expression,” says Dr Townend.

“But a public right to impart and receive information must be a central consideration. This should determine the whole information control process, and not only be addressed as an afterthought. Issues of freedom of expression and open justice should be acknowledged from the outset of the censorship process”.

“Additionally, this case has drawn attention to inadequate information handling issues in national security sensitive matters – for instance, the Court of Appeal has drawn attention to the fact it was unable to rely on previous relevant ‘closed’ decisions because they could not be found on the court file. Its establishment of a working party to advise further is very welcome, although there are much wider issues to consider too.”

In a paper published this week in History and Policy, the researchers say the case raises significant questions about the interpretation of national security guidelines, procedures for notification, the heavy-handed approach to information control and the documentation of decision-making. They lay out a number of suggestions as to how a planned system of information control could be implemented, based on cooperation with the media rather than compulsion and starting from the principle that information should, where possible, be released.

“Once a coherent process was brought in during the Second World War, things ran relatively smoothly, with the media acting responsibly in terms of what they reported,” says Dr Irving. “If we could implement a clear system today, based on similar principles, it should be possible to balance national security with the maximum possible media freedom, without putting lives or the nation at risk.”