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.
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