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Brian Cathcart: Sun and Mirror contempt case may make editors think twice

There is good piece by Brian Cathcart on the Index on Censorship site, in which he predicts that Dominic Grieve’s prosecution of the Sun and the Mirror over their coverage of the arrest of Chris Jefferies may make editors think twice about casually flouting contempt of court laws.

The Contempt of Court Act of 1981 prohibits all but the most straightforward reporting in a crime case from the moment “proceedings are active”, in other words once someone is arrested. The idea is to ensure that coverage does not interfere with the course of justice, for instance by prejudicing the eventual jury. But for years, when a big, competitive story came along, many editors and reporters in national media simply ignored the Act and continued to publish often grotesque allegations about a suspect after arrest and even sometimes after they were charged. Think Colin Stagg, Barry George,Karen Matthews and others — and Stagg and George were later shown to be innocent.

That may be about to change thanks to the actions of the attorney-general, Dominic Grieve. Not normally a man to cut the figure of a hero — a lean, bookish type, he was last seen filibustering awkwardly in the Commons when the government was under pressure over its links with the Murdochs — Grieve has done something genuinely brave. He has prosecuted the Daily Mirror and the Sun for contempt of court in the Chris Jefferies case, and he has won.

Read the full article at this link.

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Alleged hacker’s bail hearing divides news outlets over reporting restrictions

Jake Davis arrives at Westminster Magistrates Court. Image: Anthony Devlin/PA

The arrest of Jake Davis, an 18-year-old from the Shetland Islands who is alleged to be a key member of hacker collective LulzSec, was widely reported by national news organisations last week.

Like his arrest, Davis’ bail hearing at Westminster Magistrates Court yesterday was well covered, receiving top billing on both the Channel 4 News and Telegraph websites for several hours in the afternoon.

But the story divided the major news organisations over what they should and should not report from the hearing, based on restrictions put in place by section eight of the Magistrates Courts Act 1980. The Act, which is designed to minimise the risk of prejudicing any future trial, automatically places reporting restrictions on hearings which are in effect unless lifted by the judge. They permit journalists to report only the following:

1. Name of the court and names of the magistrates
2. Names, addresses and occupations of parties and witnesses and ages of the accused and witnesses
3. Names of counsel and solicitors in the proceedings
4. Offences with which the accused is charged, or summary of them
5. Any decision to commit the accused or any of the accused for trial; any decision on the disposal of the case of any accused not commuted
6. The charge or charges, or a summary of them, on which the accused is committed for trial; the court to which he or she is committed
7. Bail arrangements, including conditions of bail, but not any reasons for opposing or refusing it
8. Whether legal aid was granted
9. If proceedings are adjourned, the date and place to which they are adjourned
10. Any decision of the court to lift or not lift these reporting restrictions.

Point 6, which allows for the reporting of the charges against the accused, extends to anything detailed on the charge sheet submitted in court. Some news outlets stuck hard and fast to the rules, but others, including Channel 4 News, the Telegraph, the Independent, and the Times, reported additional details of the evidence against Davis that are technically protected by the restrictions.

Reporting details not listed in the Magistrates Court Act or covered by the charge sheet would not put a news outlet in contempt of court, but it would be a breach of the Act and carry a possible £5,000 fine.

Following a discussion between Channel 4’s news team and lawyer, its article was amended shortly after publication to remove the details in question.

The Telegraph also changed its story, in which the headline and first and second paragraphs were based on restricted details, although only this morning after I had queried the legality of the piece with a press officer there. The paper refused to comment on the reasons for amending its coverage.

The Independent article, which reports the same details of evidence against Davis as the Telegraph previously had, plus quotes from the defence and prosecution lawyers that appear to have been said in the hearing, remains unchanged at the time of publishing. The Times article also remains unchanged. No one from the Independent or the Times was available to comment at the time of publishing.

The differing approaches of national news organisations reflect something of a grey area over what should and shouldn’t be reported from hearings under the Magistrates Court Act. The Act has never been strictly observed by news outlets, a lawyer at a national newspaper told me, saying that the guiding principle tended to be whether the details reported risked prejudicing a future trial.

David Allen Green, head of media at law firm Preiskel & Co LLP, told Journalism.co.uk that the reporting of committal hearings is a “legal minefield,” adding: “Even experienced journalists and editors can get the law wrong.”

Media law consultant David Banks said that journalists tend to “push at the boundaries” of the Act but that prosecutions are rare, and only likely if the details reported by the press were in dispute in court or likely to prejudice a trial.

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Index: Due process, prejudice and the press in case of Chris Jefferies

The UK media has come in for a fair amount of criticism over the past few days for its coverage of Chris Jefferies, who was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Joanna Yeates but later released without charge.

In a post for Index on Censorship, published yesterday, Kingston University journalism professor Brian Cathcart analyses the deficiencies of England’s contempt of court laws that allow news organisations to go unpunished for what he calls the “monstering” of suspects.

Sometimes, as in the case of Jefferies, the attorney general publicly draws editors’ attention to the Contempt of Court Act of 1981, but it never makes any difference. They know and he knows that that law, supposedly intended to protect juries from improper influence, contains a loophole big enough to render it meaningless.

To convict a paper of contempt in such a case the Crown would have to prove there had been a “substantial” risk of “serious” prejudice. This, successive attorneys general have decided, is both unmeasurable and unprovable, which means it is also unenforceable. It follows that reporting of suspects around the time of arrest is unfettered.

Full post on Index on Censorship at this link.

Related content elsewhere

David Banksy: Molecular chemistry, contempt of court and the reporting of the Joanna Yeates case

Inforrm blog: Media responsibility and Chris Jefferies

Timothy J. Moore: The lost honour of Chris Jefferies

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Wandsworth Guardian reporter overturns gagging order in court

July 29th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted by in Legal

An award-winning journalist has succeeded in lifting a gagging order, which prevented the naming of a 20-year-old sexual offender.

Four women had had their breasts groped by Wajahat Zubair, from Walworth, London, who targeted women walking to or from Tooting Bec underground station. One of his victims, an Australian woman, who cannot be identified for legal reasons, was attacked five times.

Local paper, the Wandsworth Guardian, had not been able to report the case to date as the judge had placed a section 4 order banning the disclosure of the identity of the offender.

Section 4 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 bans reporting which would seriously prejudice court proceedings.

But, following an appeal from Wandsworth Guardian reporter Eleanor Harding, the judge at the hearing in Kingston Crown Court, Judge Matthews, agreed the order was imposed incorrectly in this instance and lifted the restriction on Monday.

It was found that there was no risk of prejudice in Zubair’s case and as such the gagging order had been wrongly placed, the court concluded.

The clerks’ office said the order had been introduced ‘because it is a sex case’, the Guardian reported.

The incidents occurred between March and May last year. Zubair, who had come to the UK to join his mother less than two years ago, was arrested in June last year.

On May 11 this year, after a lengthy trial, he pleaded guilty to eight sexual assaults. He will be sentenced at Kingston Crown Court on August 10.

Speaking about the case in a statement, reporter Harding said:

“The [section 4] order does not exist to protect sex offenders. We are glad it has now been overturned, as cases such as these are clearly in the public interest.

“This is a small victory over the growing culture of over-cautiousness at some courts, which contradicts the principle of open justice.”

Harding is winner of the Mind Journalist of the Year 2009, an award which rewards excellence in mental health reporting.

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Reporting restrictions: who can access them?

As reported on the main site, and as I commented previously on this blog, reporting restrictions which – if broken – would contravene the British Contempt of Court Act, seem increasingly irrelevant.

My own experiences in trying to access the reporting restrictions are perhaps a case in point. Since posting the earlier blog item on the Baby P case, we have had comments posted to this blog which we immediately suspected would contravene the reporting restrictions.

I decided to ring the Old Bailey to find out what they were. Firstly, being put through to the press room by error led to a bizarre encounter with someone (a maverick journalist?) who, extremely rudely, told me ‘you don’t pay’ so ‘why should I send you them to you’, suggesting that I put £50 in an envelope to access them.

His identity remains a mystery (he told me he had forgotten his name before hanging up). I then called the correct department who asked me to send my request by fax. After another couple of stages in which I had to confirm my status as a journalist, I finally accessed the material.

Now I know, for certain, that many of the blog comments we deleted could have seen us prosecuted under the Contempt of Court Act 1981, had we published them. The restrictions themselves forbid me to go into anymore detail than that.

The point here is that bloggers who write about Baby P have no way of accessing the reporting restrictions and therefore no way of knowing whether comments are libellous in breach of the Contempt of Court Act, or not.

When I asked the executive director of the Society of Editors, Bob Satchwell, about educating the general public about Contempt of Court he did not consider it a priority, suggesting that any policing of the internet was something of a lost cause.

But, nevertheless, before (that’s if they do) reforms come in, we have a tricky predicament. Surely, as an intermediary measure there’s a need for anonymised reporting restrictions which would explain to bloggers, social network users and citizen journalists why they can’t print certain details.

After all, journalists – on the whole – understand the need for protection of fair trials. Isn’t it time to explain things better to untrained online publishers?

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Naming Baby P is not about giving into a Facebook campaign

November 18th, 2008 | 12 Comments | Posted by in Press freedom and ethics

Naming Baby P and his mother is not about giving into a hysterical Facebook campaign group; this is about confronting the reality of the online age.

I can’t link to it here, because it would be breaching reporting restrictions, but I know Baby P’s name, the baby’s mother’s name and the name of her partner.

So does anyone with even a little bit of Google cache savvy about them: it’s on a BBC report from 2007. Google cache preserves a page even if, as the BBC has done, original articles have been removed.

As the Independent reported, Facebook groups have published the details, despite the court order not to.

My argument is not about revealing the names for justice, it is about having a law which can actually be enforced.

If it had been reported abroad, on non-UK websites, they would be not be held accountable under the UK Contempt of Court legislation. Court orders, such as the one in this case protecting the names of the defendants, are simply not feasible in the web age.

I believe that whatever ensures fair trials without prejudice, protects the innocent people involved in the case (other people connected or in the family, for example) is necessary, and if keeping the names secret does that, then that should be done: I certainly won’t be joining any Facebook group to force their disclosure.

But it should be done in such a way where they really are secret, which has not happened in this case:

Jason Owen’s name is known; the mother’s name has also been previously published and is reachable with a quick search; the baby’s photograph is in the press.

One of the Facebook groups has a description reading: ‘For sum [sic] reason the press have seen it fit not to reveal the sick people who killed this poor helpless child.’

The press has not chosen to keep quiet (they certainly would print the names if they could); they are bound by law not to. But what happens when the wider community who have not been taught about reporting restrictions and contempt of court choose to publish, using blogs and social network sites?

I imagine that most people in that community, and wider geography, knows who the family are. Last night’s BBC Panorama showed that the research team were able to access things the mother wrote on social networking sites.

Yet the names cannot be disclosed by the British press without contravening the Contempt of Court Act. This means that disclosures are made through people who aren’t necessarily so concerned about, or even think about, media ethics or face any kind of editorial process.

As I reported in September, Bob Satchwell from the Society of Editors believes the legislation is out of date and redundant, as do many others.

Orders, such as those under section 11 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, for example, allow a court to ban publication of specific information, in addition to statutory reporting restrictions. But how on earth to enforce this in an online world?

This is starkly proven in the case of Baby P.

It’s time to readdress our laws, as Satchwell has urged the Attorney General, and make trials really fair.

Postscript: I’ve just found Martin Belam’s blog post, which makes a similar point, and also focuses on the ‘sheer scale of useage of the internet’ in the UK as compared to 2000 when Victoria Climbié case was reported, for example.

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