Monthly Archives: November 2014

Image: Postal and Telegraph Censorship Department worker checks the content of a letter

Censorship chaos that echoes down the decades

While the new Centre for Law and Information Policy is based at the Institute of Advanced Studies, it is also part of a broader programme of research at the School of Advanced Study, where there are a number of Institutes engaged in projects that touch on themes related to information law and policy. For example, the recent ‘Forbidden Access: Censoring Books and Archives’ event, a collaboration between the Institute of English Studies, the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and Senate House Library. At that conference, Dr Henry Irving from the Institute of English Studies, spoke about The Ministry of Information and censorship in the Second World War. In this piece, he reflects on the challenges caused by censorship in an otherwise “open” society and the contemporary relevance of events in 1939.

At approximately 1.30 am in the night of September 11 1939 two police officers walked into the offices of the Daily Mail with instructions to seize all of its early editions. This action was repeated at newspaper offices and wholesale newsagents across the United Kingdom. A road block was set up in Fleet Street, trains from London were stopped, and members of the public had newspapers confiscated.

The war had begun eight days earlier. And this chaotic situation 12 hours earlier. At midday on 11 September, an official radio broadcast in Paris had wrongly announced that British troops were engaged in offensive action against Nazi forces. The whereabouts of British troops had been kept strictly secret since the beginning of the war. So the announcement led to serious discussions within the British government.

The Ministry of Information believed that there was little point suppressing a story which had already broken. The fact that reports of the broadcast had been picked up in the United States suggested that they would also have made their way into enemy hands.

It was eventually agreed that the government should confirm the arrival of British troops in France. But the War Office remained wary that more important information might be accidentally disclosed. It became even more worried when government censors began to receive colourful stories about troops being welcomed with flowers and partaking in bayonet charges.

The War Office responded by instructing the Ministry of Information’s censorship division to recall the news. When this attempt at retrospective censorship failed, an unnamed civil servant in the Home Office instructed the police to take “all possible steps” to protect “the national interest”. The resulting blockade led to scenes of “complete chaos”.

The events of 11-12 September 1939 became a defining moment for British censorship during World War II. They led to intense criticism. Newspaper editors accused the Ministry of Information of acting in a “true Gestapo manner” while opposition politicians spoke of a “muddle of the worst possible kind”. An opinion poll undertaken on behalf of the government also found that more than half of the public believed censorship was too tightly applied.

The fact that the Ministry of Information was responsible for both the issue and censorship of news exacerbated the criticism. Newspapers simply could not understand why the ministry had ended up censoring itself. It had been designed to act as the government’s mouthpiece and its press releases were supposedly vetted in advance. The very fact that one of these stories had been repressed suggested that the system did not work. This led to the ministry being stripped of its responsibility for censorship on October 9 1939.

This episode demonstrates the challenges caused by censorship in an otherwise “open” society. It also resonates with more contemporary concerns. Recent debates about press regulation – reignited by Sir Alan Moses’s statement that the industry-funded Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) is not “a joke” – show that the perception of any regulatory body remains crucial to its success.

It’s not yet clear how IPSO will work in practice. And it’s unlikely that it will ever be embroiled in events as dramatic as those outlined here. But if there’s a lesson to be learned from the experience of the Second World War, it’s that the system linking the production and regulation of news must be made clear.

Henry Irving is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at School of Advanced Study. He works on the ‘Publishing and Communications History of the Ministry of Information, 1939-45’ project being undertaken by the Institute of English Studies in collaboration with the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London.

An open and linkable Leveson report… inspiration for legal and policy documents?

The Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press broke new ground in the way proceedings were conducted. And as Adam Wagner noted on the UK Human Rights Blog, it was the first time a public inquiry was shown live over the internet*.  In his view, this constituted ‘a minor landmark for open justice’. Other inquiries held under the Act had also made online material available, but not in the detail provided on the Leveson Inquiry’s site.

The transcripts, written evidence and final report are all available online. While this openness of proceedings is to be applauded (and it is hoped future public inquiries will follow suit), there is still a lot to be desired in terms of accessibility and searchability. The report is split across several PDFs, the transcripts are not organised in a searchable format and there is no easy way to pinpoint references in either the transcripts or the report, with a hyperlink to the relevant page or line.

Fortunately, some time back, the excellent mySociety made the transcripts far more user-friendly with its fantastic Leveson SayIt tool.

And now Robert Sharp, free speech writer and campaigner, has done a sterling job of freeing the report from its cumbersome PDF format, with ‘an open, linkable, HTML version’.

Could this provide inspiration for future legal and policy reports? At the very least, it would be helpful if public legal texts are released in formats and with licences that allow developers to make texts truly open and searchable.

Further reading:

  • Townend, J (2013). Leveson online: A publicly reported inquiry, Ethical Space, Vol. 10, No. 1 [download]

*While Chilcott Inquiry (into the Blair government’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003), which heard evidence from 2009 to 2011 was also broadcast live and tweeted about, it was not a public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005.

IALS Visiting Fellowships 2015-2016: seeking information and data law proposals

The Institute for Advanced Legal Studies has opened its call for 2015-16 fellowship applications. Among the Institute’s research areas of interest are: ‘Access to Legal Information’ and ‘Information/Data Law and Policy’. Fellows working in those areas will be invited to join our new Centre for Law and Information Policy, launching in spring 2015.

The Institute’s Visiting Fellowships are non-stipendiary but the holders enjoy a variety of benefits in kind which facilitate their work, along with close association with the relevant research and training activity being pursued at the Institute.

Full details at this link and summary below:

Applications are now being invited for Visiting Fellowships at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies for the period 1 October 2015 – 31 August 2016 or for any period (being at least three months) between those dates. These non-stipendiary Fellowships are designed for people already established in their own field of activity who are undertaking work within fields covered by or adjacent to the Institute’s own research programmes or interests, which are currently in the following areas of research: Access to Justice; the Legal Profession; Legal Education; European Law; Legislative Drafting; Company and Commercial Law; International Financial Regulation; Financial Services Law; Access to Legal Information; Space Law; Information/Data Law and Policy. (NB: While these topics are preferred, the Institute is ready to consider other proposals).

The Fellowships are not confined to academic lawyers but are also open to scholars of other disciplines working in the relevant fields, and to practising lawyers or judges with scholarly projects to pursue. They are not available to support postgraduate students’ research.

Further details can be found at:

via IALS Visiting Fellowships 2015-2016.

Judges are human too

In Ian McEwan’s The Children Act published this year, the author deftly weaves together the personal and professional lives of a High Court Judge in the family division, the fictional Fiona Maye.

His tale is rooted in the reality of law and judging: the judgments of his friend the former Court of Appeal judge Sir Alan Ward, who, McEwan describes in the Guardian, once went to a football match with a young boy who had previously been the subject of a court hearing following his refusal (supported by his parents) of a lifesaving blood transfusion.

This football match anecdote, which exposes the human side of the judge, was one of several recounted by Professor Erika Rackley, Birmingham Law School, at Wednesday’s event at the UK Supreme Court, in her contribution to the evening’s theme: ‘The Humanity of Judging‘.

The event was part of the first national festival of the humanities, the Being Human Festival, led by the School of Advanced Study, University of London, in partnership with the Arts & Humanities Research Council and the British Academy.

The Institute of Advanced Legal Studies (IALS) had been asked to devise a legally themed event to fit into the programme (it also gave tours of its roof-top bee hives, in the ‘Bee-ing Human‘ event on 21 November).

We approached the UK Supreme Court, whose communications director, Ben Wilson, responded enthusiastically and helped us plan an event which would bring together legal humanities and social research with a public audience.

The court already offers guided tours of the court for a small fee (details here) but this event offered a free tour, followed by a discussion chaired by Lord Carnwath, Justice of the UK Supreme Court and chair of the Advisory Council of the IALS.

The event took place on Wednesday evening (19 November)  and gave attendees an insight into the origin and history of the court, which opened in 2009 in the renovated Middlesex Guildhall. The audience then gathered in Courtroom One to hear from our panel of experts.

Although the purpose of the event was to bring the public in touch with academic research, it would have seemed odd not to hear from a judge. So the discussion began, with a lively and engaging presentation by a deputy High Court judge from an unusual professional background: as a solicitor, not a barrister.

A MarksAlexandra Marks drew from her personal perspective as a commercial lawyer who has made the transition to various judicial roles (in the Crown Court, County Court and High Court), as well as her two Commissioner roles (as Judicial Appointments Commissioner and Criminal Cases Review Commissioner), and long experience as a charitable trustee of organisations such as Amnesty International, JUSTICE and Prisoners Education Trust. In particular, Marks raised the issue of emotion and the ways in which judges engaged with their cases:

We then heard from Dr Lawrence McNamara, deputy director and senior research fellow at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law; as part of a research project at the University of Reading from 2009-13 he interviewed a number of judges who had presided over terrorism trials (it was the first time that British judges had participated in such research).

L McNamaraMcNamara discussed first his own encounters with judgments and judges in Australia, noting that that humanity of judging is accompanied by the enormity of judging. Judges make decisions about the law and its consequences that will have profound effects on the lives of individuals and communities. At the same time, he said, we want our judges to be both human and engaged, yet fair and impartial.

He then turned to his encounters with judges in the terrorism interviews in the UK. The judges were “reassuringly ordinary”, he said – and they provided a very good cup of tea! Their humanity was present in so many ways that do not always appear in judgments or in court, though that is part of the institutional nature of what they do. He emphasised the difficult position of judges in this acutely sensitive area of law, and in particular, that while they followed media coverage, their overriding concern was to do justice. It was, he said, a humanity deeply imbued with responsibility.

IMG_6621 copyNext we enjoyed a series of judicial portraits presented by Professor Leslie Moran, School of Law Birkbeck, who is currently principal investigator on an Arts and Humanities Research Council funded network initiative, the Judicial Images Network. His images (PDF) showed the various ways in which Lord Phillips, the former and first President of The Supreme Court and former Lord Chief Justice, had been portrayed in public settings.

From 2007-8, the judiciary website showed an image of Lord Phillips with his young grandson, an unusual way for a judge to be shown. The judge had told Moran that “…we were each invited to provide a photograph for the website. So I thought I would choose a photograph that would show me as an ordinary person and not one of someone wearing a wig”.

Moran had been struck by the similarity of the current profile pictures on the UK Supreme Court website: while more personal and intimate than formal full body portraits of judges in judicial robes, the head-and-shoulder shots looked remarkably uniform when viewed in aggregate.


Audience members could not have failed to notice the ethnicity, age and gender similarities between 11 of 12 Supreme Court justices as well, and diversity in judging was then discussed by Professor Erika Rackley, Birmingham Law School. She began by describing the perceived ‘other-worldliness’ of judges. She described how Lady Hale has referred to Henry Cecil’s 1958 novel Sober as a Judge. In it the newly appointed (fictional) Mr Justice Thursby remarks,

 ‘Most of the public think of us [judges] as awe-inspiring figures, completely removed from ordinary everyday affairs. It must feel very like contempt of Court to think of a judge indulging in the ordinary daily routine of life – to visualize the terrible red-robed figure getting into a bath – quite naked’.

But, Rackley said, on the evidence presented at our discussion and elsewhere, we’re more likely to respond in the manner of Mr Justice Thursby’s wife, Ann, who said:

 ‘Darling, you won’t take yourself too seriously, will you? I think that most people realize that there is a human being under all that clutter’.

E RackleyIn Rackley’s view, once we accept that judges are human and – which is perhaps more controversial – that this has an impact on their judgments, it matters who the judge is: “It matters that the judiciary as a whole – and the UK Supreme Court in particular – is representative of the society they serve”.

The panellists then took a few questions, and we briefly touched on judicial appointments, the availability of judicial materials (such as sentencing remarks) and judicial values, among other aspects of the humanity of judging. There was, of course, much more we could have carried on discussing …

We hope to make video from the event, which was live-streamed on the Supreme Court website, available on the court’s YouTube channel in due course.

Update: the video is now available to watch below:


Judith Townend is Director, Centre for Law and Information Policy at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies and organised, in collaboration with Ben Wilson, Director of Communications of the UK Supreme Court, the ‘Humanity of Judging’ event. 

Further information

 Images: UK Supreme Court.