Daily Mail and Daily Mirror guilty of contempt after Milly Dowler case

 

Two national newspapers were found guilty of contempt of court today over articles published after a killer's conviction for the abduction and murder of schoolgirl Milly Dowler.

The ruling against the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror was made by two judges at the High Court in London in a case brought against them by Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

Both papers, who contested the action, had been accused of publishing "seriously prejudicial" articles.

At a hearing in June the judges were told that stories in the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror were part of an "avalanche" of adverse publicity which followed the guilty verdicts against Levi Bellfield - while jurors were still deliberating another charge against him.

Sir John Thomas and Mr Justice Tugendhat heard that as a result of the "totality" of the publicity, the Old Bailey jury was discharged from returning a verdict on that count.

The charge alleged that the day before Bellfield snatched Milly from a street in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, in 2002, he attempted to abduct Rachel Cowles, then aged 11.

Bellfield, who was previously convicted in 2008 of the murders of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy, was found guilty on June 23 last year of Milly's murder.

The newspapers argued that their publications would not have created a substantial risk of serious prejudice. But the two judges ruled in favour of the Attorney General today.

The Attorney General said after the decision: "This case shows why the media must comply with the Contempt of Court Act.

"It is unfortunate that the deluge of media coverage following the Milly Dowler verdict, not only by these papers but also other media outlets, led to the judge discharging the jury before they had completed their deliberations on a charge of attempted kidnap, ultimately depriving Rachel Cowles of a verdict in her case.

"This prosecution is a reminder to the press that whilst the jury is still to reach a verdict on all counts of the indictment the Contempt of Court Act applies.

"The question of penalty is now for the court to consider."

The Attorney General's action was brought against Associated Newspapers, publisher of the Daily Mail, and MGN, publisher of the Daily Mirror.

In the ruling, Sir John, president of the Queen's Bench Division, said the material published "went way beyond what the jury had been told about Bellfield, murderer though they knew him to be and had again found him to be".

He said: "There was a real risk that the jury would have thought that the additional material was relevant to the remaining count where he was charged with attempting to abduct a schoolgirl."

Sir John said it was necessary to ask the "overall question as to whether each publication created a substantial risk of seriously prejudicing the course of justice in the continuing trial".

He concluded: "I am sure that each publication did create such a substantial risk of serious prejudice.

"The allegations of his sexual interest in, and depraved conduct to, young girls was highly prejudicial to the count that the jury were then still considering.

"What was set out went way beyond what the jury had been told or what had been broadcast on the preceding evening.

"I have little doubt that if the jury had not been discharged, there would have been a seriously arguable point that the conviction was unsafe."

A spokesman for Associated Newspapers said: "Whilst we have nothing but sympathy for Rachel Cowles and her family, and share their dismay at the discharge of the jury in her case, we are disappointed by this decision.

"This case was wholly exceptional given what had already been put before the jury about Levi Bellfield.

"In the course of the trial, the jury were told that Bellfield had been convicted of the murders of two young women, Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of another, Kate Sheedy.

"The jurors had found him guilty of the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler before the publication of our article. The trial judge also gave the jury clear directions at the outset of the trial and in his summing up to ignore anything that was published outside the courtroom.

"We did not believe that our publication amounted to a contempt and in the light of all the circumstances we are considering whether to appeal."

PA

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