Freedom of the press under fire

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Lawyers for The Independent warned yesterday there would be grave repercussions for freedom of the press if the newspaper was found guilty of contempt of court for publishing confidential Government documents.

The documents were central to the successful appeal of four businessmen convicted of exporting arms to Iraq. They were withheld from the original trial after senior ministers signed Public Interest Immunity certificates, but disclosed on the orders of the Court of Appeal.

Fragments of two documents were reproduced in November 1995 by The Independent in its report on the outcome of the appeal by the men, who ran Ordtech, an arms technology firm.

The Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, has brought an action for contempt of court against the newspaper, together with its former editor, Ian Hargreaves, and former Westminster correspondent, Chris Blackhurst, now assistant editor of the Independent on Sunday.

Charles Gray, QC, counsel for the newspaper, told the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham, and two other judges that they would be "enlarging considerably the ambit of the law of contempt" if they found in favour of the Crown.

Earlier, Philip Havers, QC, counsel for the Attorney-General, told the judges the newspaper had committed contempt when it published the documents because the Court of Appeal had given "a very clear and unambiguous" direction that they be used only "in connection with the proceedings".

The court reserved judgement yesterday, saying it would rule "within a reasonably short period".