Guilty As Charged: Infamous Run-Ins With The Contempt of Court Act

Rebekah Brooks Private Eye

Earlier this week fortnightly political satire magazine Private Eye stole a few headlines after the Metropolitan police brought its latest issue, featuring Rebekah Brooks on the front cover, to the attention of the Attorney General suspecting it may be in contempt of court.

Why? Well as you know, former News International chief executive Brooks is currently facing a phone-hacking trial along with seven other defendants. And Met officers therefore feared a front cover making a cheap joke at Ms Brooks’ somewhat ghoulish appearance would somehow prejudice a jury into thinking she was guilty.

Fortunately, the Attorney General’s office concluded that despite the joke’s ‘poor taste’, it offered no actual risk of contempt. However, it’s not ended quite so well for others in the past. Media groups are constantly having to fumble along a particularly fine line when it comes to contempt, which after all is a strict liability offence punishable by up to two years in prison. So without further ado, here are some infamous examples of sticky situations for newspapers, websites and Joe Public alike brought about by the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

Internet Balls-Up

In a case from earlier this year, a juror was jailed for two months after he went on Facebook to post abusive messages about a defendant. 21-year-old Kasim Davey was a juror in the trial of a man for sex offences at Wood Green Crown Court when he took to the social networking site to announce: “I’ve always wanted to fuck up a paedophile & now I’m within the law!”. Unfortunately that chance never came, as he was discharged from the jury and given two months to think in great depth about why jurors are not allowed to discuss details of an ongoing trial.

Manchester Evening News Fined £30,000

In 2001 The Manchester Evening News found themselves slapped with a hefty fine after being found guilty of breaching an injunction protecting the killers of toddler James Bulger. The newspaper published a story revealing the name of the institutions where Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were housed, and were subsequently said to be endangering their lives and physical safety. Oh and on top of their fine, the paper was ordered to pay £120,000 in costs. Oof!

Say Cheese

A member of the public found themselves in a spot of bother back in 2011 when they decided to take a photo of Julian Assange during his court hearing. Rudolphe Charlot, 23, from France was caught snapping pictures of the Wikileaks founder on his mobile from the public gallery. Before he could say ‘sacre bleu!’ he was hauled before a judge and put in custody for two hours. The panicked, sobbing Frenchman was eventually let off, with Sir John Thomas of the Queen’s Bench Division, simply telling him: “Do no ever do it again.”. Sound advice.

Double Whammy In Dowler Case

Two media groups were found guilty of contempt last year after reporting Levi Bellfield’s separate trials for the kidnap of Milly Dowler and Rachel Cowles. The Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail basically jumped the gun, reporting the jury’s guilty verdict for the kidnap of Dowler before the verdict for the separate charge concerning Cowles had been reached. Reporting that a man is a child kidnapper (even if it is true) while he is still undergoing a trial for kidnapping is considered to be quite prejudicial, you see.

Footballer’s Lives

The Sunday Mirror found themselves in hot water over the trial of footballer Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate back in 2001, after publishing an interview which suggested their alleged assault on an Asian student was racially aggravated. The interview published was with the victim’s father, and its presence in a double page spread of a national newspaper predictably came to the attention of the jury. Cue a re-trial and a completely new set of jurors who were told to ignore the paper’s feature. Bowyer, after two trials costing around £2m, was cleared of all charges while Woodgate was convicted of affray. The Sunday Mirror’s editor resigned shortly after. Probably for the best.

Internet Balls-Up: Part 2

Two newspaper websites were found guilty in 2009 after posting prejudicial photos of a defendant. The Mail Online and The Sun’s website posted articles about a murder trial which both included pictures of the man on trial holding a gun. The images were quickly taken down, but it was nonetheless brought to the attention of Judge John Murphy QC. He refused to dismiss the jury, concluding they had not been significantly prejudiced, but still found both websites guilty of contempt. Apparently in the case of the Mail Online, a freelancer had posted the photo without any legal advice. Presumably his or her freelance work dried up pretty swiftly afterwards.