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Plans for inquest reporting restriction powers prompt industry concerns

Editors have voiced concerns over plans to give coroners the power to impose reporting restrictions at inquests in England and Wales.

As part of the Draft Coroners Reform Bill, published this week, journalists could be ordered not to report details which could identify the deceased in cases “where no public interest would be served”.

The bill is designed to ensure bereaved families get a better service from inquests, and as part of this some inquests into apparent suicides and child deaths could become private.

At the moment inquests must be held in public unless it is necessary to safeguard national security.

But the plans – which are subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee – have provoked strong concerns from some in the regional press.

Sarah Jane Smith, editor of the Shropshire Star, told HoldtheFrontPage: “I doubt there is a newspaper in this country which cannot provide an example of a very serious issue, be it local or national, which has only come to light through a reporter covering an inquest.

“Like so many other policies introduced to protect individuals, these proposals could be seriously abused.

“It appears this is yet another measure which will restrict the public’s automatic right to know what is going on and the media’s ability to tell them.”

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors and a former editor of the Cambridge Evening News, said the possibility of coroners banning reporting of inquests was the first step towards a banana republic.

He said: “This is absolutely outrageous, and potentially very dangerous, to suggest that sudden deaths should not be investigated publicly.

“We want to hear editors’ views and we will be resisting this.

“I really believe that the Government will think again about this and what will be required is a concerted effort by editors taking the issue up with their local MPs.”

One newspaper which has already raised concerns with the Society of Editors is the Oxford Mail, where New Zealander Jason Collie is group news editor.

In New Zealand name suppression orders can be used in coroners courts, and during his time working there Jason was stopped from reporting on the case of a man who killed his wife before committing suicide.

He told HoldtheFrontPage: “Ten minutes into the case the coroner recognised me and turned to the family and said ‘you don’t want a reporter here do you?’

“He stopped all reporting of the case and we had nowhere to go.

“I’ve seen first hand the way in which suppression can be used in inquests and in my opinion it does stifle the proper reporting of murders and suicide.

“If the same model was adopted here the media would be unable to report matters of great public interest.”

He added that both at the Mail and at the Reading Evening Post, where he previously worked, reporters did their best to handle inquests sensitively and not create further harm and distress.

Santha Rasaiah, director of political, editorial and regulatory Affairs at the Newspaper Society, said it would be making a submission to the select committee after hearing concerns from editors.

These proposals in the bill follow two public enquiries and a Government position paper to which the Society has previously made submissions.

Santha said: “Now the draft bill has been produced it does contain a number of issues of particular concern to the newspaper industry such as giving coroners blanket powers to prohibit the identity or details which might identify the deceased and giving coroners the power to exclude the press and the public from an inquest.

“We will be looking in detail at these and other issues and will be following up our previous representations.”

In a foreword to the draft bill, Lord Falconer and constitutional affairs minister Harriet Harman wrote: “We recognise public inquests as a powerful and valuable part of impartial and independent investigation, but we also know of the additional grief and pain that can arise for bereaved people from making public personal details.

“In some cases, for example some apparent suicides and child deaths, we do not believe that any public interest is served by this process and the bill will give the coroner a power to restrict reporting in these circumstances, by ordering that facts and findings which identify the deceased should not be published.”

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