Law Report: Newspaper article during trial in contempt of court

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The publication of an article in the Evening Standard, containing photographs of and giving details of the previous convictions and terrorist connections of three men during their trial for breaking prison, was a contempt of court despite the fact that the jury knew from the outset that the defendants had been convicted of serious crimes.

Attorney General v Associated Newspapers Ltd and ors; Queen's Bench Divisional Court (Lord Justice Kennedy, Mrs Justice Smith and Mr Justice Timothy Walker) 31 October 1997

The Queen's Bench Divisional Court found that contempt of court by Associated Newspapers Ltd, in publishing an article entitled "Alcatraz-on-Thames" in the Evening Standard on 22 January 1997, which led to the permanent stay of proceedings against six defendants accused of escaping from Whitemoor Prison in 1994, had been proved. A fine of pounds 40,000 was imposed.

The article in question concerned Belmarsh Prison, and included photographs of three named inmates, with a caption describing them as IRA terrorists and giving details of the serious crimes for which they were in prison. At the time of article's publication the three men were on trial with three others at Woolwich Crown Court for offences including breaking prison. A first trial had been abandoned after the publication in national newspapers (not including the Evening Standard) of information about the offences for which the men had been in Whitemoor, and of the links of five of them with the IRA.

At the time of discharging the first jury, the trial judge had made an order under section 4 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, prohibiting publication of details of the previous convictions of the defendants and any indication of IRA connections. He had directed that a copy of the order be sent to the editors of the national press and to the BBC and ITN. On the second day of the second trial he had reminded representatives of the media in court of the history of the case and had urged them to confine their coverage to what was said in court in the presence of the jury. The Evening Standard's article appeared a week later, and the following day the proceedings were stayed permanently.

David Pannick QC and Ian Burnett (Treasury Solicitor) for the Attorney General; Jonathan Caplan QC and William McCormick (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain) for the newspaper.

Lord Justice Kennedy said that the respondents had never intended to interfere in any way with the trial. A journalist employed by the Evening Standard had been commissioned to write an article on Belmarsh Prison. Neither the journalist nor any of the other staff involved appeared to have been aware of the trial which was in progress at Woolwich Crown Court. In the circumstances, and particularly having regard to the history of the case and the efforts made by the trial judge to alert the media, what had happened was plainly negligent. There was, however, no evidence of anyone having been contumacious.

The sole issue in the present case was whether the article had created a substantial risk that the proceedings against the six men would be seriously prejudiced. The case was unusual in that the jury knew from the outset that all six defendants had been convicted of serious crimes, and that it had been considered necessary to house them in a special secure unit.

Some jurors might well have deduced that some at least of the defendants were IRA terrorists, and might also have recalled some of the pre-trial publicity. That was all information the jurors might reasonably be expected to put aside when they came to deliberate about the case, but the article in question was something different. No juror who had seen it could have failed to be gripped by it. It was an article which gave the newspaper-reading juror specific information about three of the six defendants in his current case.

At the trial, much was bound to turn on the credibility of the witnesses, and the publication of the article, occurring when it did, was likely to have loaded the scales in favour of the prosecution in a way which no judicial warning could redress.