Following the publication of an article by Rod Liddle, the Spectator has been referred to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, for possible contempt of court. Mr Justice Treacy, presiding over the trial of Gary Dobson and David Norris for the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993, also warned the press not to republish any part of the article.
The key issue is whether the article had the potential to prejudice the trial; if so, Liddle could face action and the Spectator could be fined. The Contempt of Court Act 1981 created a ‘strict liability rule’, which relates to ‘active’ court proceedings. Strict liability means that the publisher’s intention is completely irrelevant: the rule applies in cases where a publication creates ‘a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings in question will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.’
Grieve has certainly been more active than his predecessors in pursuing those newspapers who report irresponsibly: this July, The Sun and the Daily Mirror were fined £18,000 and £50,000 respectively for their coverage of the investigation of Joanna Yeates’ murder in Bristol, particularly in relation to the “vilification” of her landlord, Christopher Jeffries, who was arrested but released without charge shortly afterwards. In addition, Grieve has brought contempt proceedings against Sky (for allegedly breaching an injunction relating to the kidnapped couple Paul and Rachel Chandler), as well as the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror (for their reporting of Levi Bellfield’s murder of the schoolgirl Milly Dowler).
Having seen the article it is not easy to sympathise with either Rod Liddle or the Spectator. How such a hubristic article was allowed to be published is difficult to fathom. Given the Attorney General’s zeal for pursuing reckless newspapers, the Spectator will have to quickly locate its lawyers…