UK's Attorney General to rule on BBC Diana debate

The Diana, Princess of Wales' coroner tonight referred a planned debate on the case on the BBC’s 'Newsnight' programme to the UK's Attorney General.

The Diana, Princess of Wales' coroner tonight referred a planned debate on the case on the BBC’s 'Newsnight' programme to the UK's Attorney General.

Staff working for Lord Justice Scott Baker contacted Baroness Scotland voicing fears that the discussion on whether there was any point to the inquest would prejudice the hearing.

Amid confusion over who has power to stop the discussion taking place, a spokeswoman for the coroner initially said the coroner had “sought an injunction”.

But she later apologised, saying officials had simply referred the matter to the Attorney General, who could then take a decision.

A spokesman for the Attorney General's office said: "We have received the request and it is under consideration.''

The matter was first raised in court by Mohamed al Fayed’s barrister Michael Mansfield QC, who was invited on the debate, to be chaired by Jeremy Paxman on tonight’s programme.

He told the coroner that the programme could risk prejudicing the inquest.

The coroner immediately instructed his staff to contact the BBC, urging it to “tread carefully”.

But following the end of proceedings today, in which butler Paul Burrell and former Metropolitan Police commissioner Lord Condon gave evidence, he returned to court to say he understood the programme was going ahead.

Barristers advised the coroner to take his concerns to the Attorney General, which he agreed to do.

It emerged that Mr al Fayed’s press director Katharine Witty was also invited on the programme and is now understood to be reviewing whether to take part.

The BBC insisted it would press ahead with the discussion, which it said would be “within legal boundaries”.

A spokeswoman said: “Newsnight is planning to debate the Diana inquest and whether it can achieve what it set out to.

“As with all our programmes, the production team will ensure that the debate stays within legal boundaries.”

The coroner issued a general warning to the media earlier to ensure all reporting is “fair and balanced” or risk being in contempt of court.

The BBC website has been inviting comment from viewers throughout the day on the question: “Is the Diana inquest a waste of time and money?”

The website posting, linked to the 'Newsnight' page, asks: “Do we really need to pay millions of public money for such details?

“Is the inquest a necessary exercise in transparency, or has it become a shameful circus?”

By 5.30pm more than 200 people had added comments to the website. Almost all comments were critical.

The coroner’s comments followed a separate warning over the risks of “contempt of court” earlier today after concerns were raised about an ITN report of the case.

Mr Mansfield said: “It would be impossible to conduct a sensible and responsible debate in the middle of an inquest about the merits of inquests without very strong comments being made on either side about the evidence that is being given by witnesses that are in the witness box or have been in the witness box.”

He added: “I ask that very strong representations are made to the BBC at the moment in order to ask them to reconsider the wisdom of having such a programme tonight.”

The coroner told him: “We can’t advise any programme what should or shouldn’t be in it.

“It seems to me prudent that the (inquest) secretariat should be in touch with the BBC and warn them that they had better look carefully into what they are doing and tread carefully.”

The court heard earlier that butler Paul Burrell’s aide Steve Dennis had complained to the coroner about an ITN broadcast last night on the case.

Mr Dennis alleged that the broadcast had attributed comments to the coroner which he had not made and that it went beyond a “fair, accurate and balanced” report of the proceedings.

The coroner said that he had not seen the report but added: “I wish, however, to remind all media organisations of the requirement that their reports should be fair, accurate and balanced, or they risk being in contempt of court.”

Following Mr Mansfield’s comments, he added: “Following the warning that was given this morning, if any broadcaster is ill-advised enough to cross the line ... that would make any contempt of court all the more serious.”

During discussions, Mr Mansfield said: "It's clear from the title and whatever else we can glean that this is an inappropriate programme.''

Ian Croxford QC, representing the Ritz Hotel in Paris, described the prospect of the programme as “absolutely appalling”.

His deputy Tom De La Mare added: “I think it’s material that it be pointed out to the Attorney that there is no burning urgency in this particular debate in this context... the very least the BBC should be asked to do is to defer any such debate for a number of days while the matter is properly reconsidered.”

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