A contempt for contempt?

The big guns of the legal establishment, the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions, have spent the past few weeks warning the press about the dangers of over-zealous reporting of criminal cases.

The Attorney-General appears to have been horrified by headlines such as “soccer rape confession” in the tabloids after footballers were quizzed over alleged sexual assault, and Lord Goldsmith QC issued guidelines for newspaper editors urging them to avoid “prejudicial reporting”. Shutting the stable door after the horse has sold its story? Sir David Calvert-Smith QC, retiring as Director of Public Prosecutions, was also concerned by the role of the media. And, as every journalist knows, judges can be only too happy to demand the head of the editor when something is reported about a trial or prosecution that one or more of the lawyers finds objectionable.

But history may well show these reasonable enough concerns to be echoes from an earlier age, with the coverage of the Michael Jackson prosecution in the US shining a light on the future.

The change in approach has not, surprisingly, come from the media and, unsurprisingly, has not come from the authorities. It is the parties to criminal cases who have decided, it seems, that the old rules of contempt of court stand in the way of their human right to free expression (and indeed to a fair trial).

For quite a while, the police have been media-savvy, as can be seen from the substantial coverage that the Metropolitan Police generated into the murder of “Adam”, a boy’s torso found in the Thames. The laudable aim of the police to catch the culprits has meant that an enormous amount of information about the alleged murder has come into the public domain (not just news reports, but documentaries). Police witnesses are now prepared to stand outside the doors of court to be photographed after giving evidence.

Celebrities can obtain free publicity. For example, model Sophie Anderton told readers of the Sunday Mirror (page 1, naturally) of “my hell” as she accused her “drugged-up” exboyfriend Mark Bosnich (ex-Chelsea goalkeeper) of attacking her. But readers of The Sun were given Bosnich’s version of events (that she was a junkie who gave out better than she got). The goalkeeper had thrown the model’s clothes, and apparently her, out of his London flat.

He was arrested and bailed.

A complicated story has been made more complicated, making the job of the police and CPS even harder. For celebrities, unanswered allegations can do more harm than sitting tight.

TV presenter John Leslie, when confronted by a deluge of tabloid allegations, followed by criminal charges, did what the police asked and kept a dignified silence. Months later, the case against him collapsed, but in the meantime, his career had been trashed and the media criticised him for not responding to the allegations. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So maybe celebrities have to get their defence on record straight away.

Those involved in high-profile criminal prosecutions are waking up to the fact that their human rights can include the right to tell – or sell – their story and in the world of constantly rolling news channels, live prosecution and defence will increasingly seek to use the media to their own advantage. Just like the Americans.

Hold on to your hats. For editors (and the media lawyers who advise them), there are storms ahead.

Duncan Lamont is a media lawyer at City solicitors Charles Russell

Duncan Lamont

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