The Spectator magazine issued a grovelling apology today as it was convicted over an article by the former editor of Radio Four’s Today programme Rod Liddle that threatened to bring down the long-awaited trial of two men accused of murdering Stephen Lawrence.
The 184-year-old publication was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay £1,000 to each of the teenager’s parents for the distress caused by the article, which broke court-imposed restrictions on what could be reported to ensure a fair trial for Gary Dobson and David Norris.
The article, which highlighted the previous convictions and racism of the two men and described them as “white trash”, came to light as Stephen’s best friend, Duwayne Brooks, gave highly charged evidence detailing the last minutes of the black teenager’s life during the Old Bailey trial.
The article had the potential to have “devastating consequences” on the trial ofthe two men, who were both later convicted for murder and are serving life sentences, Westminster Magistrates’ Court heard today. The murder trial hung in the balance for a couple of hours, said Alison Morgan, prosecuting.
The magazine said the article was published because of an “unprecedented and bitterly regretted failure” at the publication after the editor, Fraser Nelson, was off work sick and a senior outside lawyer, who was supposed to review all work, was also absent. The lawyer passed the work to a junior, who gave it a clean bill of health, despite a series of court rulings limiting what could be said about the two men before the end of the trial.
Brian Spiro, representing the magazine, said it apologised “not only to those closest to Stephen Lawrence” but to the police, prosecutors, the trial judge and everyone who worked to ensure the wheels of justice ran smoothly.
The Spectator faced a maximum penalty of £5,000 after avoiding the more serious charge of contempt of court – which could have led to an unlimited fine and the publisher being jailed for up to two years – because no juror saw the article last November.
Neville Lawrence, the father of Stephen, said the fine would amount only to a “slap on the wrist” for the magazine.
Prosecutors had looked at whether Mr Nelson – who sat at the back of the court today – should be prosecuted but instead decided to take action against the company rather than any person.
Mr Liddle could have been prosecuted only if the more serious charge had been pursued, the Crown Prosecution Service said.
District Judge Howard Riddle said the article had at least the potential to undermine justice. “It takes no imagination whatsoever to realise the distress that this development would cause, not least to the family of Stephen Lawrence,” he said.