Friday 31 December 2010

Does contempt of court only apply to local press?

Northern Echo editor Peter Barron looks at national coverage of the Jo Yeates murder inquiry and the arrest of her landlord Chris Jefferies and asks on his blog today "Is contempt of court a thing of the past?"

Peter writes about discussions he has had with heads of the Crown Prosecution Service in the North-East over contempt of court.

"They have amounted to no more than gentle warnings about the dangers of going too far in reports which may be prejudicial to the chances of defendants getting a fair trial.

"In each case, I - and the paper's lawyers - have been confident that we have not breached the law. Nevertheless, we have been left with the feeling that we are being watched.

"In those discussions, I have made the wider point to the CPS chiefs that it is increasingly difficult to know where we stand when the nationals get away with publishing more or less what they want.

"The murder of Jo Yeates in Bristol is yet another example. Today's Daily Mirror carries a photograph of her arrested landlord Chris Jefferies with the headline 'JO SUSPECT IS PEEPING TOM'.

"Two ex-tenants are quoted as saying he used to peer intrusively into the flats he rented out. The clear impression left is that he's a pervert.

"Chris Jefferies might look a bit odd but so far he hasn't been found guilty of anything.

"So I pose the simple question: Is contempt of court a thing of the past - or is it only local editors who feel the heat?"

  • A post on Beehivecity warns that a "Twitter frenzy" over Jefferies' arrest could harm justice.
  • UPDATE: BBC News reports: "The attorney general is considering issuing a notice to remind the media that coverage of the arrest in the Jo Yeates murder inquiry must be fair. Attorney General Dominic Grieve said if necessary he would take action."

    In an interview for BBC Radio 4's World At One, Grieve said: "We are considering what I've seen in newspapers today, and we will try to take such action as is right to ensure that the course of justice is not in any way impeded.

    "Newspapers are under a legal obligation, indeed all media is under a legal obligation, in fact everybody who puts something on the internet is under a legal obligation, to observe the principles of the Contempt of Court Act," he said.

    "If they don't, they lay themselves open to proceedings for contempt."

3 comments: said...

Well said, Jon. We've just had the same 'active proceedings' debate here in our regional newsroom. Colleagues in Bristol playing by the rules
but nationals sticking two fingers up

Banksy said...

Comes down to 'substantial risk' really.

What the nats do is sometimes seriously prejudicial, but sometimes I suspect that regionals feel the heat because they have greater local penetration, where the jurors are drawn from.

So a nat may have better overall circulation, but not where it counts as far as contempt of court is concerned.

Bear in mind also that contempt proceedinsg need to be authorised by the Attorney General, or someone acting on his authority. Some have suggested that AGs, being members of Cabinet, are sometimes loth to have a go at the Nats who the government is otherwise courting so assiduously. A very cynical view, I know.

Personally, I think one ought to credit jurors with the sense they are born with. I don't believe everything I read, why then should we think a jury will be filled with witless ciphers in the steely grip of the Sun or Mail?

Anonymous said...

Aside from contempt I would imagine there's a pretty strong case for a libel action against any newspaper which plasters your photo on the fron page and calls you a 'peeping tom'.

Paul, Hull.