Justice system criticised as Spectator faces £5,000 fine over article that jeopardised Stephen Lawrence trial


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The father of Stephen Lawrence renewed his criticisms of the criminal justice system today after it emerged that that the Spectator magazine faces a maximum £5,000 fine over an article written by Rod Liddle that jeopardised the trial of two of the black teenager’s racist killers.

The magazine said it did not plan to contest accusations that it breached reporting restrictions designed to ensure a fair trial for Gary Dobson and David Norris, who were later found guilty by a jury of murdering the 18-year-old and jailed for life.

But Neville Lawrence said that he was disappointed that the magazine did not face the more serious charge of contempt of court, which could have seen the magazine face an unlimited fine and the publisher jailed for up to two years.

"The article was published at a critical time at the start of the case when it was clear that any press comments could cause the trial to collapse. I understand that the maximum fine is £5,000, which is little more than a slap on the wrist for a magazine like The Spectator."

The article – entitled “Do Gary Dobson and David Norris really have any chance of a fair trial” – said that three of the five original suspects had family links to gangsters and highlighted “rumours in right-wing circles” that Stephen Lawrence could be a small-time drug dealer.

Mr Liddle, the former editor of Radio 4’s Today programme, also reported that David Norris’s father was a drug dealer and detailed a previous criminal conviction for Norris.

Referring to the two men, Mr Liddle wrote: “Should we care about these undoubtedly violent, often criminal, certainly unpleasant white trash? That they were (and probably still are) racists is quite beyond dispute.”

Before the trial, the Lord Chief Justice had ordered a ban on reporting claims trial that the two men were violent, racists, had tried to interfere with the investigation or were involved in the murder.

The trial judge Mr Justice Treacy referred the article to the Attorney-General to consider for charges for contempt of court and ordered the jury not to read the piece.

But Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve, who had signalled a tougher stance against publications for breaching court orders, ruled out charging the magazine with contempt of court and asked prosecutors to consider a lesser charge.

As the writer, Mr Liddle would not have personally faced prosecution on either charge. The magazine’s managing director, Ben Greenish, has been named in prosecution documents.

Duncan Lamont, a media lawyer, said the magazine was likely to be “mightily relieved” at not being charge with contempt. He said the decision “stops Rod Liddle making himself a martyr” for the cause of free expression. “The lesson that they are trying to put is just don’t try to be a clever dick and sail close to the wind,” he said.

The Attorney General’s Office declined to give the reasons why the magazine was not charged with contempt.

Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, said: "We apologised in court for this article in November, and accept that it transgressed the reporting restrictions then in place. The judge accepted our apology and we will not be contesting the CPS's decision."

A court hearing has been set for June 7.