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Reporting of a fight involving Geoff Knights, the boyfriend of EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth, did not break the contempt laws - despite the sensational halting of his subsequent criminal trial because coverage in the tabloids had been oppressive. The surprise ruling from the High Court yesterday was seen as giving the go-ahead to trial by media. But in answer to charges brought by the Attorney General, Sir Nicholas Lyell, under the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, Lord Justice Schiemann and Mr Justice Smedley insisted it was quite possible for a judge to stop a criminal trial because of prejudice caused by the totality of press coverage but for no one individual publication to be guilty of contempt.

Sir Nicholas had asked the court to fine the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Star, Sun and the now-defunct Today after Judge Roger Sanders stopped the trial of Knights on charges of wounding Martin Davies, his chauffeur, with intent. The judge ruled that coverage had been "unlawful, misleading, scandalous and malicious", and "so unfair, outrageous and oppressive" that a fair trial was impossible. It was thought to have been the first time adverse publicity alone had led a judge to halt a trial. Patricia Wynn Davies