AddThis SmartLayers

Regional daily helps overturn police secrecy bid

A police force lost a bid to keep secret the names of firearms officers involved in an inquest into a man who murdered three members of his family then shot himself.

Durham Constabulary persuaded Coroner Andrew Tweddle to make an order under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 banning the media from publishing the names of officers giving evidence in the inquest into the death of Michael Atherton and the family members he shot.

Fiona Barton, for the force, argued at a hearing on Monday (March 4) that there was a danger of the media pointing the finger of blame if the officers were named.

But the Coroner lifted the order after hearing representations from journalists from the Press Association, ITV, the Daily Mail and the Northern Echo who were covering the hearing, at Crook, County Durham.

Press Association reporter Tom White had argued that there was no justification for a section 11 order, which should be made only if it could be shown to be necessary to ensure the administration of justice.

Police officers who dealt with firearms certificates performed a duty involving responsibility and accountability to the public, and should be properly identified so that their actions could be properly scrutinised.

Mr Tweddle said the order was his judgment call to make and decided he was not convinced by Ms Barton’s argument.

The inquest heard that Atherton, 42, shot his partner, Susan McGoldrick, 47, her sister Alison Turnbull, 44, and Alison’s daughter, Tanya Turnbull, 24, dead before turning the gun on himself at his home in Horden, Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year’s Day 2012.

Pathologist Dr Nigel Cooper said all three women died after being shot in the back at close range, while Atherton died from a gunshot wound to the left side of his head with the barrel of the gun having been very close when fired.

When the order was lifted the media were able to report that one of the witnesses at the inquest was former Constable Damien Cobain, who had left the force in 2010 after being convicted of misconduct in public office for selling guns surrendered to the force by members of the public.

Cobain, who worked as a firearms inquiry officer, was part of the team that dealt with Atherton’s application for a firearms certificate.

He told the inquest that he had never seen guidance from the Home Office or the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) on the issuing of gun certificates.

Another officer, Karen Bromley, who was a supervisor in the Durham Constabulary firearms office, told the hearing: “There was no formal training, I’m not aware of any formal training in firearm departments – 90% of application forms were straightforward.”

Mr Tweddle commented that the force’s procedures were “more of an ad hoc arrangement”.

Mr Tweddle called today for “root and branch” changes to gun licensing at the conclusion of the inquest into a taxi driver who shot dead three members of his family before killing himself.

With the current “flawed” system it was “fortuitous” there had not been more incidents like the one in Horden, near Peterlee, County Durham, on New Year’s Day 2012, he said.

He found that the three women were unlawfully killed and that Atherton killed himself.

The inquest had heard that Atherton, despite a history of domestic abuse and threats to self-harm, legally owned six weapons, including three shotguns.

One comment

You can follow all replies to this entry through the comments feed.
  • March 11, 2013 at 3:06 pm

    Well done, coroner, for the U-turn, and those journalists and media organisations who challenged the police over the anonymity.
    The police said there was a danger of the media pointing the finger of blame. Heaven forbid!
    The case law is that there must be a ‘real and immediate’ risk to personal safety for anonymity to be justified in such circumstances, or a risk to the process of justice (see McNae, pp. 173, 175-6, 21st edition).
    The risk in this particular case was of embarrassment for the police.

    Report this comment

    Like this comment(0)