Media coverage of early stage criminal investigations
The recent search of the home belonging to Sir Cliff Richard has sparked a furore of debate once again surrounding the relationship between the media and the police.
The Telegraph have recently reported that images of the search beamed live via a BBC helicopter as police entered the premises have raised questions for both the BBC and the Constabulary to answer before a Parliamentary Select Committee when Parliament returns from their summer recess. With the findings of Lord Leveson still fresh, the handling of this case may have wide ranging implications for the way such matters are handled in the future.
Search warrants are often issued by Magistrates at the request of police engaged in the early stages of an investigation. It is only when sufficient evidence is obtained to satisfy the Crown Prosecution Service that there is a realistic prospect of conviction and it is in the public interest to prosecute that charges can be brought. The issuing of a search warrant is not an indication that a charge is imminent or indeed that a criminal charge will ever be brought. A search warrant is an investigative tool, the constabulary a service designed to be impartial investigators interested only in the truth. With that in mind does the constabulary and the media have questions to answer in fuelling rumour, speculation and conjecture during a sensitive police enquiry very much in its infancy?
Many have expressed their view in respect of the handling of this case including Geoffrey Robertson QC, Human Rights Lawyer writing in the Independent who argues that the leaking of such information to the press breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to privacy, as well as undermining the whole concept of fairness. In contrast South Yorkshire Police state that the publicity led to further information for which they are grateful.
One is still left asking however whether this approach, encouraging trial by media before offering an accused person the right to respond to specific information that only the police have possession of, calls into question the concept of fairness at the heart of our justice system.
Perhaps even post the Leveson enquiry there are serious questions to be asked about how early stage police investigations are covered by the media and to what extent that coverage is compatible with the rights of all, be they alleged victim or alleged perpetrator.
The debate will doubtless continue and criminal lawyers will consider the evidential and wider issues with interest, only time will tell the impact or actions that will flow from the way the search was covered by the British Press.