Rape, footballers and a media kicking around allegations on the edge of a legal minefield

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The Independent Online

The press found the story impossible to resist. After all, it apparently had everything: sex, violence, football, glamour, celebrity and big money. Each day this week, more detail has trickled out - taking the media ever closer to the danger zone of contempt of court.

The news - of a 17-year-old who alleges she was raped by five Premier League footballers and sexually assaulted by two others after consenting to have sex with an eighth player at a glamorous London hotel - broke in The Sun on Monday. Apart from the lurid euphemism "that an unnatural sex act was performed on the teenager" it was a fairly bald account.

But, by the next day, the papers, anxious to make up for the fact that they were too frightened of the libel laws to name the players, were awash with gratuitous background facts. The scene was the £400-a-night five-star Grosvenor House hotel in Park Lane. The victim was a Catholic sixth former - tall, slim, with shoulder-length brown hair who was a part-time model. The player who had paid for the room was an English international who had eaten beforehand at Sketch, one of the West End's smartest and most expensive "eateries".

Where authentic specifics were not available, they were approximated. The Sun carried photos of a video tape to illustrate the fact that the police were looking at CCTV footage, and of an electronic room key alongside the tale of the police ruse to find out who was in which room - they made the hotel turn off the key system so that the players had to re-register to get into their rooms the next morning. It also carried silhouettes purporting to be of the seven players, though football enthusiasts suggested that these perhaps showed a closer resemblance to a bunch of Sun sub-editors than to the footballers in question.

But, as the week progressed, and the welter of circumstantial evidence accumulated, the process began to take on echoes of the way in which the TV presenter John Leslie was gradually "outed" over allegations of a sexual assault on Ulrika Jonsson - a media fiasco that ended with Mr Leslie walking free from court two months ago.

After just two days, the Attorney General issued a warning to the media not to "engage in conduct, not to publish material, including comment, that may create a substantial risk of serious prejudice to the course of justice".

But the papers were not cowed. Quotes from "friends" of the victim were printed, supposedly revealing how her assailants had laughed as they held her down and called her a "slag" as they took turns to assault her. "She alleges they were all over her like animals. She said she walked out of the room without saying a word when it was over, with the players' laughter ringing in her ears," the "source" was quoted as saying. The Daily Sport even went so far as to name the club for which most of the footballers play - which prompted a complaint to the Attorney General.

Yet not just the conventional media was causing a headache for the footballers' lawyers. The internet was abuzz with cyber-gossip on the case, some of it naming the men but much of it naming footballers who were not involved. Scores of football website message boards were shut after solicitors contacted internet providers threatening injunctions if their clients' names were not erased. Other sites replaced the names with asterisks. One firm of lawyers even tracked thousands of e-mails naming the men to their original source and warned the sender that he could face a libel action. His employer was also informed.

Meanwhile, the reports continued. The club's "revered" manager took the news of the claims so badly that his colleagues feared he was having a heart attack. He was thinking of putting the players up for sale in the next transfer window. He had told the footballers that any of them who were proved to have been present would have his contract terminated - with the club retaining the player's registration, stopping him playing for any other club and in effect ending his career. An older player with the same club, "a world famous international", had had to be physically restrained from assaulting his accused colleagues.

There were reports that one player, an England international, had an alibi in the form of another girl who would testify that at the time of the alleged attack he was engaged in a "12-hour sex romp" in another room in the hotel with her. He was said to have been fined £90,000 by his club and called "the village idiot" for booking the room in which the attack is claimed to have taken place - even though he wasn't there. The Sun (again) ran a front-page photo of the player, with his face obscured, leaving a London restaurant at 2.45am on the night of the incident. To cap it all, the publicist Max Clifford was reported yesterday to have become involved not, of course, to sell the girl's story but to advise and protect her from the "media scrum" developing around her family.

No arrests have been made. The police say they are awaiting the results of forensic science tests on the hotel bedding before they even question the footballers. But, with every day that passes, as the media frenzy grows, fears increase that insatiable newspapers will jeopardise the prospect of a fair trial.

Yesterday, one football club, Aston Villa, issued a statement declaring that none of its players was involved. Since there were only five other Premiership clubs playing in London over the weekend, the odds are constantly narrowing that the men's identity will be revealed. Yesterday The Sun (yet again) claimed that the eighth player - the one with whom the girl had consented to have sex when the others allegedly burst into the bedroom - plays for Chelsea. Shortly afterwards, the policeman leading the investigation, Commander John Yates, issued a warning about the dangers of "trial by media".

Now the lawyers have another fear. It is that fans will use chants to taunt the players at their match today, and the chanting will inadvertently be picked up by media broadcasts. Malcolm Clarke, chairman of the Football Supporters' Federation, yesterday appealed to fans to restrict chanting to what is happening on the field of play. Some hope.