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Papers in contempt over web photos

The publishers of two national daily newspapers today became the first website owners in the country to be found guilty of contempt of court "online".

Senior judges described how easy access to the internet was "troubling" the criminal courts as they convicted the Daily Mail and The Sun of creating "a substantial risk" of prejudicing the murder trial of Ryan Ward.

Both had published website pictures of Ward posing with a gun after the trial started. Ward was eventually convicted of murdering car mechanic Craig Wass by hitting him with a brick.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve took the publishers to the High Court in London, arguing both were in contempt under the strict liability rule of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act.

The rule makes it clear that publishing an article or picture which could prejudice a trial may be contempt, even though there is no actual "intent" to interfere with the course of justice.

Today Lord Justice Laws, sitting with Mr Justice Owen, ruled there had been contempt - "notwithstanding that publication of the image of the accused with a pistol was a mistake".

The judge warned: "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.

"This case demonstrates the need to recognise that instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial."

The judge said the Ward case was "notorious" and had received considerable publicity.

Ward faced trial at Sheffield Crown Court in 2009 and was eventually convicted of murdering car mechanic Craig Wass by hitting him over the head with a brick, fracturing his skull and causing other head injuries from which he died.

The judge said Ward had claimed he acted in self-defence and did not have any "murderous intent".

Following the opening of the prosecution on November 3 2009, the jury was sent home.

At 5.04pm an article was published on Mail Online "accompanied by a picture which showed Ward holding a pistol in his right hand with his index finger on the trigger whilst he indicated firing a handgun with his left hand".

Under the picture was the caption: "Drink-fuelled attack: Ryan Ward was seen boasting about the incident on CCTV."

The picture remained on Mail Online for four hours and 54 minutes, when it was removed at 9.58pm after it was realised a mistake had been made and it might prejudice the trial.

The judge said that, to his credit, the Mail journalist who sent an email with an article about the prosecution accompanied by the photograph made clear to a member of the Daily Mail's picture desk that the handgun should not be included in any copy of the photograph as it would prejudice the trial.

The editors of the website decided that the article was suitable for online publication, but a freelance journalist prepared the story and added the photograph without obtaining any legal advice.

The judge said: "After the error was noticed instructions were given to all Mail Online journalists to ensure that all articles relating to crime and the courts, including captions and photographs, are checked by a lawyer before publication.

Associated Newspapers Ltd, the Mail's publishers, had "expressed its regret and apology for what occurred".

The judge said the court accepted the publication was an error, and that steps had been taken to improve the newspaper's system to avoid such errors in future.

In the case of The Sun, published by News Group Newspapers Limited, the picture appeared at 1.22am on November 4 on Sun Online, the day after the trial opening.

It had been supplied by a photographic agency from a social networking site, on the "page" of a co-defendant.

The picture was the same as that intended for use in the newspaper version on November 4.

"Unfortunately, although the picture was carefully cropped for newspaper publication so as to exclude Ward's left hand and any view of the gun, when the picture was cropped for publication online, the top part, the barrel, of the gun was visible."

Those responsible for the website did not appreciate that they needed to ensure that the careful cropping of the picture used in the newspaper was repeated online.

The picture remained online until the officer in the Ward case contacted The Sun's news desk, and it was removed ten minutes after the request at 8.50pm.

The publication of the inadequately cropped photograph was plainly a mistake and those responsible for online versions of photographs had been warned of the need for care in the future.

Judge Michael Murphy QC, who presided at the trial, observed that the photographs were not on the internet for very long and acted on the basis that no juror had seen them, no prejudice had been caused and the case could proceed.

But he also observed that there was a "prima facie case of contempt of court".

In their defence, both newspapers relied upon the limited time the pictures remained online - about five hours in the case of Mail Online and about 19 for Sun Online.

Lord Justice Moses said a juror would not have understood the trial judge's instructions to the jury to prohibit reading about the case in news reports online.

The trust put in juries "to put aside extraneous material" during a trial "cannot always be relied upon by those whose publications put the prospects of a fair trial at substantial risk"

A publisher who created such a risk "cannot always rely upon the steps taken to allay the very risk it has created."

The judge said the court was satisfied that there was "a substantial risk that a juror would see the photograph and that there was a substantial risk of serious prejudice, namely that the jury would have had to be discharged, had that occurred."