Media access to prisoners under scrutiny

Two prisoners are trying to overturn a decision that prevents inmates' from communicating with the media, reports Roger Pearson

The journalist's right to gain professional access to those serving prison sentences is currently under scrutiny.

The Law Lords are considering whether to allow a challenge to an Appeal Court ruling that will enable prison authorities to ban visits to prisoners by journalists if there is no undertaking that material obtained during such visits will not be used in the media.

The House of Lords has adjourned its decision on whether Michael O'Brien and Ian Simms (who are both serving life sentences for murder) can continue with their appeal. The adjournment will give the Home Secretary, Jack straw, an opportunity to lodge any objections he has to such a move.

In the High Court in December 1996, Mr Justice Latham ruled that the prison authorities were not entitled to ban visits to prisoners by journalists.

In a judgment which was a major victory for media rights, he held that a restriction on direct oral communication in such circumstances was a restriction on the right to free speech and was unlawful.

However, the Home Secretary successfully appealed against that decision. In December last year, Lords Justices Kennedy, Judge and Chadwick ruled that a convicted prisoner has no right to communicate orally with the media through a journalist, although correspondence is still permitted within the rules laid down. They held that the loss of this "right" and others was part and parcel of the jail sentence that had been imposed on the prisoners.

They stated that the European Convention on Human Rights recognised that some freedoms, including the freedom to receive and impart information without interference by public authority, could be curtailed by imprisonment.

The judges also said that if a prisoner's friend happened to be a journalist, then the prison service was entitled to require an undertaking such as the one in this case.

It was neither irrational, disproportionate or unjustifiable for the prison authorities to require such an undertaking.