Another valuable article appears today in the Daily Mail. The context is a curious system of secret ‘family’ courts who take children from families but may not be reported by the press. This evil seems peculiar to Britain, and the details may be read in the article. The new judge in charge of the system, Sir James Munby, is reforming the system.
But Sir James went on to make a number of statements which deserve much wider notice.
As part of a ruling against secrecy in the family courts, Sir James declared: ‘Freedom of speech is not something to be awarded to those who are thought deserving and denied to those who are thought undeserving’.
Sir James, who is president of the Family Division of the High Court, said the Press was necessary to ensure scrutiny of the courts and that occasional bad behaviour by some journalists had to be tolerated.
If Press criticism ‘exceeds what is lawful’ there are already laws to deal with that.
‘It is not the role of the judge to seek to exercise any kind of editorial control over the manner in which the media reports information which it is entitled to publish,’ he said. ‘Comment and criticism may be ill informed and based on misunderstanding or misrepresentation of the facts.
‘The fear of such criticism, however justified the fear may be, is, however, not of itself a justification for prior restraint by injunction.’
He also stood up for the rights of tabloid newspapers to express criticism in ‘intemperate language’.
‘If there is no basis for injuncting a story expressed in the temperate or scholarly language of a legal periodical or the broadsheet press, there can be no basis for injuncting the same story simply because it is expressed in the more robust, colourful or intemperate language of the tabloid press or even in language which is crude, insulting and vulgar.
‘The publicist … may be an unprincipled charlatan seeking to manipulate public opinion by feeding it tendentious accounts of the proceedings. But freedom of speech is not something to be awarded to those who are thought deserving and denied to those who are thought undeserving.’
Unlike Lord Leveson, he emphasised the ‘enormous challenges’ posed by the internet ‘The law must develop and adapt, as it always has done down the years in response to other revolutionary technologies.’
Privacy law, developed by judges and based on the Human Rights Act, has encouraged increasing numbers of celebrities to apply for injunctions concealing embarrassing stories about themselves.
I think that the point about intemperate language is important. Powerful pressure groups have arranged for “anti-hate” laws to be published. These have the effect of making it dangerous to criticise those groups, and very dangerous to do so in an unguarded way. The judge is right to point out that this is nonsense.
Let us hope that this is the first signs of a new and more liberal approach to free speech in Britain.
There is, however, some way to go. At the foot of the article we find the words: “Sorry we are unable to accept comments for legal reasons.”
I can think of no good reason why we, the public, should be unable to comment on this subject.