GQ magazine in the UK was found in contempt of court for its cover story on Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson that was published while the phone hacking trial was still going on last year.
The April 2014 story was headlined “Hacking Exclusive! Michael Wolff at the Trial of the Century.”
According to the contempt of court judgment by the High Court’s Lord Chief Justice John Thomas, Brooks’ lawyers complained about the article on March 21 to the attorney general and within days, GQ‘s editor-in-chief Dylan Jones was warned that the attorney general was investigating for contempt of court. Once GQ learned about the contempt of court possibility, “some 61 per cent of the 38,000 newsstand copies of the title were retrieved and destroyed,” according to the Press Gazette.
Interestingly, GQ‘s Jones had debated publishing the article, given the contempt rules, but ultimately decided to run it during the trial, the contempt judgment said. Additionally the judgment revealed that Jones told Wolff the article “could not be published until after the trial,” but Wolff said he tried to write it without breaking the contempt guidelines. “Jones still took the view that it would not be possible to publish it, but after taking advice that the article was not likely to contravene the strict liability rule, decided to publish it,” the ruling states.
It was likely that jurors would have seen the article since it was teased prominently on the cover, the Lord Chief Justice argued. (Read his full argument.)
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The attorney general’s office told iMediaEthics by e-mail: “While it is rare to bring proceedings against publishers, the GQ article went against the most fundamental principle of our criminal justice system; namely that everyone is entitled to a fair trial and it is not for the press to decide who is deserving of this protection.”
According to the High Court’s ruling, specifically, the attorney general focused on four areas that were alleged to be prejudicial:
- The suggestion that Rupert Murdoch “knew about the phone hacking” but wasn’t on trial because neither the defense nor prosecution wanted it
- The fact that Murdoch paid for the defense and the suggestion that he did this in order to limit his exposure
- The suggestion that Coulson was covering up for Murdoch
- The suggestion that Brooks would do what she needed to protect her career.
“I have left in little doubt that the effect of the article read as a whole was very seriously prejudicial,” the judgment says. “I cannot accept the submission advanced by Conde Nast that the article was riddled with ambiguity and lacking in identifiable assertions or that it was difficult to search for its meaning. On the contrary, it plainly implied that Mr Rupert Murdoch was a participant in the phone hacking, that the defendants must have been aware of the phone hacking, that the defence was being funded by him and conducted on the defendant’ instructions so as to protect his interests, but in a way that might also secure their acquittal. It was not mere comment or observation, but an article that made the clear implications about Mr Rupert Murdoch, Mrs Brooks and Mr Coulson I have set out.”
After the article came out, the judge decided against bringing up the article to the jury or discharging the jury but reminded the jury not to read about the case in the media. Conde Nast argued that the article was “a small incident in a long trial which could have had no impact on any juror who had read it.” If a juror had read it, there would “have been a seriously arguable ground of appeal,” though, Lord Chief Justice Thomas wrote, continuing, “It is in my view clear that the article published in the April 2014 issue of GQ created a substantial risk that the course of justice in the trial of R v Edmondson and others would be seriously prejudiced or impeded. Conde Nast therefore breached the strict liability rule and was therefore in contempt of court.”
iMediaEthics has written to British GQ and the attorney general’s office for comment.