The Milly Dowler Case:

Ian Burrell: Yet another issue where the law and the press can go to war

Comment

Mr Justice Wilkie's decision to discharge the Levi Bellfield jury yesterday is the latest in a long-running series of clashes between the judicial system and parts of the media, which are finding it increasingly difficult to recognise any boundaries.

Faced with the increased competition that comes with the 24/7 news culture that has emerged with the internet, media organisations are finding it harder to keep material under their hats, even when the law requires them to do so. The recent use of Twitter to circumvent privacy super-injunctions – such as that which applied to the footballer Ryan Giggs – has undermined the authority of court orders and encouraged the notion that nothing is off-limits.

The result of such a culture was seen yesterday when news organisations were swept along by the excitement of the conviction of Bellfield for Milly Dowler's murder, which had gone tantalisingly unsolved for more than nine years, an aeon in the modern news cycle. Straight out on the air went interviews with his former girlfriend Emma Mills and into the next day's newspapers went detailed "backgrounders", even though they dealt with material that had not been placed before Bellfield's jury. Never mind that the same jury was still deliberating its verdict on the separate charge of abducting 11-year-old Rachel Cowles the day before Milly was murdered.

The Daily Mail devoted its front page to asking whether Bellfield had also been responsible for one of the most famous unsolved crimes of the past 20 years, the double murder of Lin Russell and her six-year-old daughter Megan in 1996. After considering the impact on the jury of all the coverage, Mr Justice Wilkie described it as "most unfortunate and in some cases deplorable". The jury could not "be expected to do the impossible", he said. "As a result of the trigger being pulled too soon, on what otherwise would have been proper and appropriate material, I have been put in a position where I am obliged to discharge the jury." He then referred the coverage to the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, as a possible contempt of court.

It is only a few months since Mr Grieve had to warn tabloid newspapers over their coverage of the similarly disturbing murder of Jo Yeates, 25, who was found dead in Bristol on Christmas Day. The Attorney General spoke out after a frenzy of reporting concerning a retired schoolteacher who happened to be Ms Yeates's landlord. Mr Grieve stated his belief that newspapers were advised by legal teams who were fully aware of the Contempt of Court Act. "I would simply ask them to reflect carefully on how they can provide proper coverage on a matter of public importance whilst at the same time, mindful of how our legal system works, they can also ensure that a trial process, if one were ever to happen, will not be prejudiced by material being published which may be relevant to any case that comes before the court."

Last month Vincent Tabak, a Dutch engineer and neighbour of Ms Yeates, admitted manslaughter. Soon afterwards, the Attorney General began contempt proceedings against The Sun and the Daily Mirror over its earlier coverage. The case is likely to be heard next month.

The Contempt of Court Act 1981 holds that any conduct which interferes with the course of justice may be treated as contempt, whether there was an intention to do so or not. The penalty is up to two years in jail or an unlimited fine. Despite the seriousness of the offence, the boundaries of contempt have repeatedly been challenged by a news media which regulates itself through the Press Complaints Commission. The courts have permitted the use of Twitter to report proceedings in real time but are resisting pressure to follow the United States in introducing television cameras in the court room. To some, the almost unfettered spread of information threatens the integrity of the jury system, which is enshrined in Magna Carta.

The judiciary has recently been more aggressive in trying to reassert its position. This month a juror, Joanne Fraill, was sentenced to eight months in jail for causing a drugs trial to collapse by talking to a defendant via Facebook under the pseudonym "Jo Smilie". Also this month, Britain's most high-profile media judge, Mr Justice Eady, gave an unprecedented interview in which he told the law commentator Joshua Rozenberg that laws on privacy were there for a good reason. "The issue is not, 'Is it true?' but 'Is it your business?'" he said, also giving the view that "the press is normally interested in footballers, sex and so on".

The Levi Bellfield case was about something far more serious. But sections of the press were caught up in a race to put information into the public domain, to take credit for its role in the conviction (the Daily Mirror, one of the papers criticised for its reporting on the innocent landlord in the Bristol case, proudly claimed its reporter had "nailed" Bellfield), and to attribute other offences to the serial killer. As a result, Rachel Cowles and her family have become victims for a second time.

When Media Goes Too Far

1993

Two sisters, Lisa and Michelle Taylor were convicted of murder but cleared on appeal because of the sensational reporting of their trial. Despite the apparent contempt, no proceedings were brought against the papers concerned.

1995

The trial on assault charges of Geoff Knights, partner of the former EastEnders actress Gillian Taylforth collapsed over media reporting described by the judge as "scandalous". Contempt proceedings brought by the Attorney General failed.

1997

London Evening Standard was fined £40,000 after its reporting halted the trial of two men who had escaped from Whitemoor prison by revealing that some of the six escapees from the jail were IRA terrorists.

2001

The trial of the footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate collapsed after the Sunday Mirror published an interview with the father of the victim. The paper was fined £175,000; Bowyer was acquitted at a re-trial and Woodgate was convicted of affray.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Sport
football
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power