Sun fined £3,000 for Oldham gas explosion reporting breach


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The Independent Online

A national newspaper has been fined more than £3,000 for breaching reporting restrictions when it published a story about a man accused of causing a huge explosion which killed a two-year-old boy.

A district judge questioned whether the maximum fine available to him was high enough after The Sun admitted breaching restrictions following Andrew Partington's appearance at Oldham Magistrates' Court last year accused of manslaughter and other offences.

Partington, 28, was later jailed for 10 years for causing the explosion in Oldham in June last year which obliterated his house and neighbouring properties and killed toddler Jamie Heaton.

Today, Manchester Magistrates' Court heard that the newspaper published a report of Partington's first appearance before magistrates which included many details of the evidence against him.

The court heard that these included the content of text messages Partington sent which "formed the crux of the prosecution case".

These details had been outlined in court as the defendant applied to be released on bail but strict reporting restrictions prevent all but basic details of cases being published at this stage of a prosecution in order to stop potential jurors becoming prejudiced.

District Judge Jonathan Taaffe said The Sun's report on September 11 last year "clearly went beyond what was permitted".

He told the court: "I recognise that the press provide and perform a valuable function in our society.

"The facts surrounding the explosion in Oldham were both newsworthy and subject of intense public interest."

But he added: "It's in circumstances such as these that it's absolutely necessary for the press to behave responsibility and comply with the law."

The district judge said a failure to do this could result in guilty people walking free or "the innocent having their reputations trashed".

Turning to the report in The Sun, he said: "This was at best shoddy journalism and at worst it's an example of sensational reporting in a bid to generate short-term headlines and, no doubt, financial gain."

Mr Taaffe imposed a fine of £3,350 and ordered the paper to pay costs of £500 and a victim surcharge of £120.

He said the maximum fine was £5,000 - usually for a defendant who was found guilty after a trial.

He said: "Many will feel this (the potential maximum fine) doesn't reflect the serious nature of the behaviour of The Sun."

Earlier, Jonathan Caplan QC, defending News Group Newspapers, said the newspaper fully admitted its error and had apologised to the court at the time through the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

He said an online version was withdrawn when the CPS pointed out the error.

The barrister also pointed out that Partington had indicated at the magistrates' court that he was going to plead guilty to the offences and had made a number of admissions to the police.

But Mr Caplan accepted that this was no guarantee there would not be a trial before a jury and was "not in any way a justification".

The company pleaded guilty to one count of "reporting matters in contravention of a reporting restriction" contrary to Section 52A of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

It had been charged with two counts - one in relation to the newspaper and another in relation to its website - but the one relating to online publication was withdrawn today.

The court heard that The Sun has never breached this Act before, nor is there any record of it breaching the more commonly prosecuted Magistrates' Court Act 1980.

Mr Caplan said training had been arranged for in-house lawyers in the wake of the mistake.

"I repeat the apology," he said.

"My client takes this seriously. It was an error and they have pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity."

He added: "This article should not have been published."

Mr Caplan asked for 28 days to pay the fine but Mr Taaffe ordered it to be paid within a week.