The Media Column: 'One day, a newspaper will cause an evil man to go free. Do we want that?'

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The Independent Online

New Year is not a good time for newspaper sales - or newspaper stories. Traditionally, there is not a great deal going on in the outside world, and not many people in the mood to read about it even if it is. But there are at least two people whose newspaper habits show no respite even in the quiet season: spare a thought, please, for the Attorney General Lord Goldsmith, and the poor lad from his local paper shop - who also has not had much of a break this year.

Lord Goldsmith has not just been reading the papers. He has been writing to them as well. A few days ago, his office was in touch with every Fleet Street editor. The cause of his concern was the looming trial of Nathan Coleman, the man charged with the murder of PC Ian Broadhurst, the police officer shot dead in Leeds on Boxing Day.

The Attorney General is responsible for seeing that newspaper coverage of criminal cases does not prevent a suspect from receiving a fair trial. He has asked editors to explain why they consider that their reports about the background of Coleman will not prejudice the suspect's chances of a fair hearing. Lord Goldsmith clearly suspects that some of the coverage has gone too far - and thus constitutes a contempt of court. The 1981 Contempt of Court Act states that it is a criminal offence to publish material that "creates a substantial risk of serious prejudice or impediment to particular proceedings".

What I would like to do here is relay to you some of the facts that have been revealed by the red-top tabloids and others, about Coleman. In the circumstances, you'll understand if I do not, for to do so would not only be hypocritical - not yet, thank god, a criminal offence in newspaper offices - but would likely cause Lord Goldsmith yet more grief. Suffice it to say that details have been made public of Coleman that may not endear him to a jury when his case comes to trial.

At the start of the case, which is unlikely to be much before the end of the year, jurors will, no doubt, be told to put out of their minds anything they have read about Coleman in the papers, and to confine their view of the man and his alleged actions to what they hear inside the courtroom. But will this be possible?

It is at times like this that newspaper editors - or, more likely, their lawyers - turn to the late Mr Justice Lawton, and his comments when the East End gangster Ronnie Kray stood in front of him in 1969, charged with murder. Just a month earlier, Kray had been convicted of another killing - and the papers had reported the facts about that murder in colourful terms. But the judge was confident that this would not prevent Kray from receiving a fair trial the second time around: "I have enough confidence in my fellow countrymen to think that they have got newspapers sized up," he said. In any case, "the public's recollection [of newspaper reports] is short", and "the drama, if I may use that term, of a trial, almost always has the effect of excluding from recollection that which went before".

The danger, if Mr Justice Lawton was wrong, is that a clever lawyer will one day successfully argue that his client - perhaps a very wicked man - ought to have the charges against him dropped, since a fair trial has been made impossible.

The terrible irony is that the more dangerous a suspect is - and the more lurid the details of his past are - the more incentive there is for a paper to print details of the facts before he goes to trial. Do we really want a newspaper to set any criminal free?

* Simon Jenkins - that is Mr Simon Jenkins, please - has a new title. He was awarded a knighthood in the New Year's honours list for "services to journalism". But Sir Simon - oops, Mr Jenkins - wants it to be known that he has "no intention of using a title". In his column in The Times after accepting the gong, he went further. The honours list "is polluted by Buggins's turn"; it "suffers acute dignity deficit"; it appears to be put together by "some demented Downing Street task force"; the naming of honours after "outdated allusions to knightly qualities" is "absurd"; indeed, he would, if it were possible, "gladly" donate his title to charity.

But, despite all this, Sir Simon - there I go again - has decided to, as he put it, "accept the honour with gratitude".

He is right. Sir Simon doesn't sound quite correct. Alas, the Queen - with her obsession with knights, dames and the British Empire - does not dole out awards to celebrate the ability of her subjects to combine cake-eating with cake-having.