How open is the court at the Azelle Rodney Inquiry?
Subject to any restrictions imposed by a notice or order under section 19, the chairman must take such steps as he considers reasonable to secure that members of the public (including reporters) are able:
(a) to attend the inquiry or to see and hear a simultaneous transmission of proceedings at the inquiry;
(b) to obtain or to view a record of evidence and documents given, produced or provided to the inquiry or inquiry panel.
Public Inquiries Act 2005, Section 18 (1)
At the first oral hearing of the Azelle Rodney Inquiry, the court was shown a short video filmed by police officer, E12, on April 30th 2005, moments before Rodney, 24, travelling in the backseat of a Volkswagon Golf, was shot six times by another officer, E7. Ashley Underwood QC, counsel to the inquiry, described how police ‘believed that the occupants of the Golf were on their way to commit an armed robbery in connection with drugs’.
As recorded in the published transcript, the court, held at the Principal Registry of the Family Division, saw clips and photographs from a partial reconstruction of the ‘hard stop’ used by police, in unmarked cars, to halt the car that Rodney was travelling in. The media was free to report this evidence, but the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) raised concerns about the publication of videos and documents on the Inquiry’s website, which is providing a live audio stream and daily transcripts of proceedings.
An application by the MPS asked the chairman of the Inquiry, the retired High Court Judge Sir Christopher Holland, to delay publishing evidence not previously in the public domain until the witness had given evidence, or the evidence was read in or summarised to the Inquiry. The MPS was concerned that evidence could be potentially unfair to witnesses and allow ‘inaccurate’ public comment.
As an example, Anne Studd QC, counsel for the police, told the Inquiry that ‘it has been suggested in the press that the words ‘Sweet as, sweet as’ come after the shots have been fired,’ as heard in E12’s video. ‘On proper analysis, that is not correct,’ she said.
She suggested to the Chairman:
‘If you, sir, reach a different conclusion to the conclusion that has been reached by the public, as a result of them listening to and taking note of comment upon it, then again, the integrity and the fairness of your Inquiry is damaged.’
Studd said that the MPS was ‘alive to the need for open justice’:
‘The only question is whether here, media comment, social commentators, Twitter – whatever it may be – will cause the public to reach conclusions that are, in the long run, potentially inaccurate. And if that is a risk, and the Metropolitan Police think it may well be, it will be very difficult for your Inquiry to retrieve the position and put the balance back into place.’
In response, the BBC, ITN, Guardian News & Media and Times Newspapers Ltd made a joint submission arguing that material should be uploaded to the Inquiry’s website and made available to the public as soon as practicable and that there were no cogent grounds for delay.
Catrin Evans, for the media, argued in court:
‘… [T]he only distinction that could possibly be made, which would be one worthy of any contemplation by you, sir, would be if there were any material difference between the right of access of the public in this room and the right of access of the public out there, who couldn’t be here. And in my respectful submission, that is a distinction without a difference; that it is not possible to draw it.’
In regards to the issue of accuracy, she identified a problem ‘with the lack of specifics’:
‘… because at the moment there is just a general statement that witnesses might feel pressured because there might be inaccurate statements in the press. But that is the reality in any court proceeding, sir, as you know.’
‘… no document, photograph or video recording referred to in the opening statement by Leading Counsel to the Inquiry shall be uploaded onto the Inquiry’s website unless and until it has been adduced as evidence during the course of the Inquiry hearings.’
The order did not, however, apply to the unannotated version E12’s video, which has now been released to the media and public, on the Inquiry website. The Chairman also made two clarifications for the avoidance of doubt:
a. a document, photograph or video recording may be adduced in evidence without being formally produced by a witness, provided it is done with the permission of the Chairman;
b. nothing in this order is intended to inhibit the uploading on to the Inquiry website of any transcript of proceedings nor the reporting or live audio feed of any part of the Inquiry proceedings.
The effect of this order, therefore, is to restrict online publication of the witness statements and visual material referenced in the opening statement until they are adduced in evidence – with the exception of the E12 video.
As the order clarifies, the press is able to report on everything that is said in open court. On Wednesday [5 September] public and press were not allowed in the courtroom while anonymous witnesses gave evidence, and were asked to watch on a screen in the overflow room next door. As in the courtroom, tweeting and use of mobile phones is not permitted in this area.
There are a couple of practical access issues, however. According to one attendee, the loud tannoy in the Court makes it difficult to hear everything that is said, when watching in the outside area. Additionally, the seating arrangement in front of the screen may cause viewing problems for some people.
Public Inquiries in the digital age
In November 2011, barrister Adam Wagner, described how the Leveson Inquiry marked ‘a minor landmark for open justice’, on the UK Human Rights blog. ‘For the first time, a public inquiry is being shown live over the internet,’ he said. The Chilcott Inquiry was also broadcast live (and tweeted about) but unlike Leveson it was not a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.
The Azelle Rodney Inquiry is not entirely replicating that model: tweeting in the courtroom is prohibited and the livestream is restricted to audio. Additionally, archived audio material does not seem – as yet – to have been made available. Its site is very useful, if not as extensive as Leveson’s.
Simple and cheap digital technology provides excellent opportunities for the public reporting of Inquiries to an audience unable to attend court in person, but more legal wrangles over the timing and nature of publication can be expected as Inquiries extend their online reach.
Dr Judith Townend is a lecturer in media and information law at the University of Sussex and a member of the Transparency Project core group