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, The Sun and the now-defunct Today after Judge Roger Sanders stopped the trial of Knights on charges of wounding Martin Davies, the soap star's chauffeur, with intent. The judge ruled that pre-trial 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. The Act outlaws publication of material that would cause a "substantial risk of serious prejudice" to a trial and bites from the moment of arrest.
Between them the papers detailed Knights' previous convictions for violence, interviewed witnesses and gave exaggerated accounts of the alleged crime. After the arrest of Mr Knights in April 1995 "what one would have expected to be treated as sub judice became an opportunity for certain newspaper editors to take it upon themselves to try Mr Knights in their columns," Judge Sanders said.
One of the flaws of the 1981 Act is that it ignores the cumulative effect of publicity. Each report has to be examined individually to see whether it could have influenced a juror.An additional feature of the case was that Knights "colourful past" had already been the subject of massive publicity.
The judges said it was "difficult to see how any one of the publications . . . created any greater risk of serious prejudice than that which had already been created".
Philip Havers, for the Attorney General, said the press "may well conclude that they have very considerable freedom to publish what they choose at the time of arrest". Leave to appeal was refused and Sir Nicholas will now have to apply directly to the Law Lords.
The exercise has so far cost the taxpayer around pounds 250,000. The papers' costs were ordered to be paid out of central funds.Reuse content