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
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.
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.
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.
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.