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Dominic Grieve, pictured above in a July interview. (Credit: YouTube, WorldNewsAustralia, screenshot)

The UK Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, spoke to the UK City University London journalism school Dec. 1 about his taking newspapers to court this year. Grieve’s speech (see here) was titled “Contempt – A Balancing Act: balancing the freedom of the press with the fair administration of justice.”

As we wrote last month, Grieve has started “proceedings for possible contempt of court charges” against the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror over their reporting on Levi Bellfield, the man convicted of murdering teenager Milly Dowler in 2002.  Grieve also has been asked to look into possible charges of contempt of court against the Spectator magazine.

Grieve opened his speech noting that he wanted to address his”role as Attorney General in the context of the press,” press freedom, “the right to a fair trial” and how all three come into play.  As attorney general, Grieve explained his main role is the “principal legal adviser to the Government,” however, he often acts as “Guardian of the Public Interest.”  As such he has independence from the government, the press, and so forth.  “And it is as Guardian of the Public Interest that I act in cases of contempt – it is this role which requires me to consider carefully the competing interests of press freedom and the fair administration of Justice,” he explained.

For example, he asked attendees to put themselves in the place of a wrongly accused criminal suspect.  If a judge decided an element from that person’s past isn’t relevant or shouldn’t be admitted, then why does the media drudge up details to no purpose?, he asked.

As Grieve explained, contempt of court can happen even unintentionally.  He can look into charges if a media outlet publishes anything in which a byproduct is ” that Justice will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.”  According to Grieve, contempt of court can happen as soon as someone is arrested.  Grieve noted that he was “concerned” about how news reports affect juries and noted how hard it is to un-learn or un-know something, like a detail reported in the papers.

“I have been concerned, even before I was appointed Attorney General, at what I perceived to be the increasing tendency of the press to test the boundaries of what was acceptable over the reporting of criminal cases. At times it appeared to me the press had lost any sense of internal constraint and felt able, indeed entitled, to print what they wished, shielded by the right of ‘freedom of expression’ without any of the concomitant responsibilities,” Grieve said.

Grieve detailed some of the cases he’s looked into:

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The Sun, Daily Mail Guilty of Contempt of Court

  1. The Daily Mail and the UK Sun published online the full version of a photo of a defendant named Ryan Ward “holding a pistol, with his finger on the trigger.”  While both sites later removed the picture and the jury was advised not to look at the Internet, Grieve “initiated proceedings for contempt” because the judge argued there “was a prima facie case of contempt.”  This case was significant because it was the first time contempt was applied to an online publication. (See our March story about this here.)
  2. The Daily Mirror and the UK Sun published negative articles about Christopher Jefferies, the landlord of murdered woman Joanna Yeates.  While Jefferies was initially arrested and questioned, he was later cleared of all charges.  However, Grieve noted that “at the time of his arrest and whilst in custody, there was a torrent of reports which, in my view, were highly prejudicial.”  As such, Grieve said he “was satisfied there was a substantial risk these articles would both seriously prejudice and seriously impede the course of Justice and commenced proceedings for contempt.”  As we wrote earlier this year, the newspapers were found guilty of contempt of court. (See our July story about this here.)
  3. According to Grieve, a jury member contacted an acquitted defendant on Facebook to discuss the “ongoing debate on the jury room” about the defendant’s co-defendants, whose verdicts hadn’t been determined.    In that case, both the defendant and the jury member were charged with contempt and ordered to prison.

“The Internet does not provide some form of immunity from prosecution,” Grieve reminded.

Moving forward, Grieve noted that he may give the press “advisory notices” if he thinks they may be on the border of contempt of court. However, he emphasized that a lack of these warnings doesn’t mean the press has “open season.”

Grieve on Injunctions

Grieve also weighed in on members of Parliament using Parliamentary privilege to name people holding injunctions.  iMediaEthics has written about the use of injunctions, which are court orders preventing media from publishing certain stories or information.  In at least two high-profile cases this year, Parliament members have named injunction holders during Parliament. Parliamentary privilege prevents them from being charged with violating the terms of the injunction.

We wrote in May when a UK superinjunction barred the press from naming a soccer player alleged to have an affair with Big Brother contestant Imogen Thomas. A Scottish newspaper defied the order and ran a photo of the soccer player rumored to be in question. Later, Parliament member John Hemming named the soccer player under Parliamentary privilege.

Also in May, Parliament member Lord Stoneham named former Royal Bank of Scotland chief Sir Fred Goodwin as having an injunction.

While Grieve defended Parliamentary rights, he criticized members who “flout” the law and a judge’s order because they can. Further, he advised journalists to exhibit “caution” in reporting on these named injunction holders, because he said “it is still an open question as to whether something said in Parliament in breach of a court order may be repeated in the press.”

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UK Atty General Gives Speech on Contempt of Court Charges, Media Reporting on Crimes, Injunction Holders

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