Just how much can we report after an arrest?

COMMENT: People need to have viable alternative to driving

0
Have your say

Crime is, and always has been (and I would confidently say always will be) a major subject of interest to newspaper readers.

And often it is not just the details of the particular crime that are of public interest, but the more general issues that a high-profile offence raises.

They might include a discussion on how free we should be to protect our own property, as was the debate when Norfolk farmer Tony Martin shot dead a teenage intruder some years ago.

But there comes a time when coverage needs to be tempered – and that is when an arrest has been made.

Sometimes readers ask why we have not published more on a particular crime and we have to tell them that we are bound by The Contempt of Court Act 1981 not to publish anything likely to seriously damage the chance of a fair trial.

Contrary to one counter challenge we sometimes face, the law does not say we cannot publish anything at all about the circumstances of a crime once an arrest has been made. It requires basically that a report must not create a substantial risk that the course of justice in the proceedings will be seriously impeded or prejudiced.

I’ve italicised two key words in the previous paragraph to show that we do have some flexibility to continue to keep readers informed of developments and to examine any issues surrounding the particular alleged offence.

It’s fair to say though that we have to be particularly careful what we write – the law says we can face prosecution regardless of whether there was any intent to so interfere.

In recent years, national newspapers in particular have pushed further and further towards the ‘serious’ and ‘substantial’ benchmarks as they seek to satisfy reader interest.

This week, the bounds will be tested in a court action.

The publishers of two national newspapers tomorrow face contempt proceedings for their coverage of the killing of landscape architect Joanna Yeates.

The action by the Attorney General Dominic Grieve follows reports in the Daily Mirror and The Sun after the arrest of Miss Yeates’ former landlord, Chris Jefferies, who was later released without charge.

The Attorney General argued that the strict liability rule under the Contempt of Court Act 1981 is not merely concerned with causing a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the trial, but is concerned to protect the integrity of justice in the proceedings, and applied to matters which might impede it.

The High Court was told that both Mirror Group Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mirror, and News Group Newspapers, publisher of The Sun, deny liability for contempt.

Mr Jefferies’ solicitor, Louis Charalambous, said after the High Court hearing that his client expected the newspaper owners to sack editors if they were found guilty of contempt.

Dutchman Vincent Tabak, 33, pleaded guilty to manslaughter but denied Miss Yeates’ murder at a hearing in May.