Weighing Public's Right To Know

scales of Justice
CBS's London-based correspondent Richard Roth writes for CBSNews.com on essential differences between Americans and Brits on the idea of the public's "right to know."

George Bernard Shaw famously described the United States and Britain as "two nations separated by a common language." In the wake of the London bombings, and the criminal investigation and judicial process that have ensued, it's also seemed as if they're two nations separated by a common legal system.

For example, we've learned much of our information about the July 7 bombs and bombers from leaks – and even a police briefing – in the U.S.; British authorities have been mostly silent on such details.

Part of the reason is cultural. In much of official Britain there's an assumption that if the public doesn't have a need to know, then it needn't be told. Part of the reason involves police work: for investigators, information known only to them – and the criminal – can be a valuable tool for trapping a suspect. But a major reason why information tends to flow freer in the U.S. than in the U.K. lies in the law.

Despite their shared foundation in common law, there are sharply divergent views and practice in America and Britain on what the public is entitled to know about crimes, criminals and the justice system; in particular, where the line gets drawn between a defendant's right to a fair trial – and the public's right to know.

At the extreme, media free-for-alls that surrounded the prosecutions of O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson have been seen here as illustrations of the U.S. system gone awry. When evidence and legal strategy are topics for comment outside the courtroom; when lawyers and witnesses talk to the press; and when reporters write about all this in detail, commenting on the strength of the case and even speculating on the jury's demeanor – the British have always argued that justice suffers.

In Britain, under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, newspapers and broadcasters can be prosecuted for publishing anything that might "create a substantial risk that the course of public justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced."

In practice, once an arrest warrant has been issued, the law amounts to a gag order on the press. In trial coverage here, the cue to the reader or listener that a reporter is operating under restrictions comes at the end of the story, with the words, "the case continues."