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UK's most-read papers found to be in contempt of court

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Royal Courts of Justice, where the High Court sits in London and heard the case against the tabloids

The Sun and The Daily Mailtabloid newspapers that are the most-read papers in the UK — have been found to be in contempt of court by the High Court in London. The case is thought to be a landmark decision regarding Internet publishing.

The case dates back to November 2009, when Ryan Ward was on trial before Sheffield Crown Court, accused of murdering Craig Wass. The prosecution case was that Ward hit Wass with a brick, and no firearms allegation was made against Ward at trial, but both titles placed a photograph on their websites of Ward with a gun.

Cquote1.svg We conclude that the nature of the photograph created a substantial risk of prejudicing any juror who saw that photograph against the defendant Ward Cquote2.svg

—High Court

The papers took the image off their sites within hours, after being ordered to do so. The trial judge, His Honour Judge Michael Murphy QC, who had previously ordered the jury not to consult the Internet, did not halt the prosecution as he felt "satisfied" the jury hadn't seen the picture. Ward was convicted.

Lawyers for Associated Newspapers and News Group Newspapers — respective owners of The Daily Mail and the The Sun — had argued in their defence that using the photo posed an "insubstantial" risk of prejudice, denying contempt although accepting they made "a mistake".

Attorney General Dominic Grieve had described "seriously impeded or prejudiced" proceedings had jurors accessed the photos. Angus McCullough QC represented Grieve, telling the court the "strict liability" provisions of the Contempt of Court Act 1981 had been breached.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve brought the action against the papers

High Court judges Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Owen Thursday sided with Grieve and McCullough: "We conclude that the nature of the photograph created a substantial risk of prejudicing any juror who saw that photograph against the defendant Ward."

Cquote1.svg [A] freelance journalist, then working for the website, added the photograph without taking any legal advice Cquote2.svg

The Daily Mail

Lord Justice Moses' judgment mentioned the significance of the case in regards to online publications: "The criminal courts have been troubled by the dangers to the integrity and fairness of a criminal trial, where juries can obtain such easy access to the internet and to other forms of instant communication. Once information is published on the Internet, it is difficult if not impossible completely to remove it... This case demonstrates the need to recognise that instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial."

The Daily Mail's website covered the ruling in an article in which they also offered an explanation for how they published the photograph. "[A] journalist had submitted an article about the prosecution along with the photograph by e-mail, including a warning stating the handgun should not be included in any copy of the photograph as it would prejudice the trial," it reads. "But when the story was put up online a freelance journalist, then working for the website, added the photograph without taking any legal advice."

The penalties for Associated Newspapers and News Group Newspapers will be considered by the judges later.


Sources