On 17 November, the Sunday Times claimed on its front page that MI5 had foiled a poison-gas attack on London’s underground.
Six men had several days earlier been arrested under the Terrorism Act (2000). The report alleged that the men were part of an Al-Qaeda network operating in Europe and had been planning to build a ‘gas bomb’ which was to be released on a crowded Tube train. The plot, said the paper, would have ’caused chaos across the capital’. The story came at the end of a week of confusing and conflicting statements by the government about the risk of a terrorist attack on London.
The next day, the media were full of scare stories about ‘gas attacks’ on the Tube. Newspapers alleged that one of the defendants was ‘a key aide of terror chief Bin Laden’. Reporters claimed to know which underground stations had been targeted, what chemicals would have been used and what time the attack would have occurred, all based on ‘unnamed intelligence sources’. Television news programmes showed maps of London with waves of gas spreading through the underground lines out to the suburbs. It was claimed that ‘the plan may have been to release cyanide gas at the height of the rush hour in the walkways and escalators’. But, based on the actual facts known, the plan may have been anything, or nothing, at all.
The speculation, presumably aimed at giving the poor reader or viewer a livelier picture of what the impact of any attack would have been, gave the mistaken impression that MI5 had foiled an attack at the eleventh hour. But even the government was eager to point out that the arrests were part of an attempt to ‘disrupt’ suspected terrorists ‘at an early stage’.
Home secretary David Blunkett later distanced himself from the Sunday Times report, claiming that officers in the SO13 anti-terror squad at Scotland Yard had fed the ‘gas attack’ story to the press. But Blunkett himself had to be reminded, during an interview on the Today programme, that his description of the defendants, as being part of a ‘terrorist cell’, was in contempt of court. The 1981 Contempt of Court Act forbids publication of anything that might disturb the natural course of justice as a case proceeds through the criminal justice system – this includes interviews with witnesses, speculation about motives or suggestions of evidence not brought before the court. The Act applies from the moment of arrest, even before suspects have been charged. If the case against the men collapsed due to prejudicial publicity, would Blunkett, along with the Sunday Times and other papers, face prosecution for contempt?
The day after the Sunday Times article appeared, three of the arrested men were charged with possession of articles for the preparation, instigation and commission of terrorism acts; the other arrested men were released. The charges related to alleged false passports and credit cards, but no allegations were made in court about explosives or chemicals and there was no claim that the suspects had any materials for the manufacture of bombs. John Prescott even stated publicly that there was no evidence of any plans for a gas attack or use of bombs.
Solicitors for the defendants revealed that, although the suspects had been detained for a week, they had not been questioned once about a ‘cyanide plot’ or a ‘poison-gas attack’ or any of the other widely reported allegations. Nor was there an armed police presence, as would be normal in serious anti-terrorist cases, when the defendants appeared to hear the charges against them.
Ironically, the attention paid to the ‘gas attack’ story on 18 November meant that the story of the High Court’s decision to order a fresh inquest into the death of Ronald Maddison was marginalised. Maddison died during nerve gas tests at Porton Down military research centre in the 1950s. The British military had been testing the nerve gas sarin on thousands of young servicemen. Sarin is the nerve agent that was later used in the terrorist attack on the Tokyo underground in 1995.
Fair trial at risk
But the greatest damage that the frenzied reporting of the ‘cyanide plot’ will cause will be to justice itself. As solicitor Gareth Peirce, who is representing one of the defendants, noted, the ‘tidal wave of completely contemptuous and prejudicial coverage of this case’ has put at risk any chance of a fair trial.
And, if the men are still acquitted of charges under the Terrorism Act (2000), the prejudicial reporting and the climate of fear created by the press will be useful for another reason. As the original Sunday Times report explained, if the prosecution fails, the defendants would still be likely to face detention under the 2001 Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act, which has the advantage for the government that no actual case needs to be made in a court in order to imprison foreigners. Were this to happen, we would then be locking up people who not only have never been successfully prosecuted, but who have actually been acquitted of charges which the state has done its best to convict them of, under an Act – the Terrorism Act (2000) – which is already weighted against the defendant. But then we already know they’re guilty anyway, so why worry?