Two pressing concerns for journalists were addressed head on by the Home Secretary, Mrs Theresa May, in a speech at the Journalists’ Charity’s annual reception at the Embassy of Ireland in London.
She gave an assurance that action was being taken to guard against the identification of journalists’ sources, and that there would be new safeguards on the length of time accused people could be held on pre-trial bail without charge.
Mrs May, welcomed by the Ambassador of Ireland Mr Dan Mulhall, was on fine form, complementing the charity on all the work it did to look after journalists who had fallen on hard times or were in need of help.
MPs at Westminster recognised the problem, and the House of Commons shared the concept of helping colleagues in distress, “but we just call it the House of Lords”.
She raised another laugh when describing how gripped she had been by Sunday television viewing on the BBC, “watching all those characters in War and Peace coming out in support of Mother Russia, and not least of all, Andrew Marr interviewing the Labour leader”.
In emphasising the government’s commitment to preserving the freedom of the press, she said ministers acknowledged the concerns of journalists regarding the access to data by the Police, and the fears that this might lead to the identification of journalists’ sources.
Sometimes the Police had to have access, but there had been concerns that the Police had been “a little over zealous” in some of their applications.
Recommendations were made last year by Sir Anthony May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and the government would introduce a statutory code of practice. It would be clear in statute that if access to data led to the identification of a journalist’s sources that authority had to be given by a judge, and there would need to be a clear of public interest for that to be possible.
The Home Secretary also recognised that journalists had been among those who had challenged the government on the length of pre-trial bail without charge. The Police needed time to investigate, but it could not be right that people had been on pre-trial bail “not just for months, but sometimes years without being charged, and their life put on hold”.
There would be consultations with the Police, but in the first instance pre-charge bail would be limited to 28 days, but in exceptional cases where charges had not been laid the case would have to go before a judge for judicial oversight.
Mrs May expressed her admiration for the scope of the Journalists’ Charity’s work, and especially its sheltered housing and care home at Dorking. She singled out for praise Marhita Wareing, who at the age of 85, published Trio, the weekly newspaper for the Dorking residents, and the late Betty Titmuss, who was still writing a local newspaper column when she died at the age of 81.
“That desire to search out a story, that desire to entertain, and to fulfil that role with integrity, underpins our free society, and the government is committed to preserving and protecting a free press.”
In her thanks to the Embassy and Home Secretary, the chair of the charity’s trustees Sue Ryan, congratulated Mrs May for being on top form, and for helping to give the annual reception such a buzz.
On arrival at the embassy (20.1.2016), Mrs May had been welcomed by the Ambassador and his wife, Mrs Greta Mulhall, and several journalists noted that the Home Secretary was not wearing her trade mark kitten heels, but boots decorated with diamante heels, which one observant fashion reporter said were the kind worn by the Spice Girls.
The presence of leading politicians at the reception was appreciated by the charity, said Ms Ryan, and Mrs May’s speech had kept up that great tradition. “The Home Secretary always plays it straight, she is always on top of her brief, and when it comes to issues like the snoopers’ charter, she could not have explained it better.”
In opening the proceedings, Mr Mulhall reminded the Home Secretary that the last time she visited the embassy was just over a year ago, to sign a joint UK-Irish visa scheme so that people travelling from China and India could apply to a British or Irish high commission or embassy to get a visa to travel to both countries.
“We jointly issue visas to people to come to these islands and you, Home Secretary, were instrumental in that with our justice minister, a powerful illustration of the new climate of relations between our two countries.”
Given the speculation about the Home Secretary’s position on a possible referendum on UK membership of the European Union, the ambassador steered clear of Westminster politics, but stressed that the Irish people had a genuine hope that the UK would decide to remain in the EU, “whenever the referendum takes place”.
“I say that as a friendly neighbour. Our view is that EU membership is very beneficial for British-Irish relations.”
Mr Mulhall said the Taoiseach had played a helpful role in supporting the request of David Cameron for a reform agenda to enable Britain to remain in the EU.
He admitted he had a personal reason for hoping Britain would not leave the EU. Before becoming ambassador, he had been a press officer for eight years for the Irish government, dealing with journalists in Brussels and Dublin, and that helped explain why he was always delighted to host the Journalists’ Charity’s reception.
“The Irish will continue to be supportive of the British case, and we do hope that you will remain in the EU ... otherwise for me, it may be having to host receptions for journalists’ charities in Brussels or Berlin, rather than London.”
Mr Mulhall looked ahead to the centenary commemorations this year for the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, at start of the struggle for Irish independence, and the Battle of Somme, in which so many Irish people fought and died.
“Although the two events changed the course of history, we can view them now with a different set of responses, no longer worried by the friction of the past, and we can do so within a relationship that has never been better, another step on the path to reconciliation.”
Nicholas Jones 21.1.2016