The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, is to consult with the media over new contempt of court guidelines, following the coverage of the investigation into the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.
In the Mary Ward lecture, which he gave in London on Monday, Lord Goldsmith said that given the potentially serious consequences both for media organisations and journalists who commit contempt of court, it was essential that there should be a clear legal framework in which they should work.
While believing the media as a whole acts responsibly in reporting proceedings in criminal courts, Lord Goldsmith said: “I still firmly believe some more general guidance would be beneficial to the media in understanding the wider implications of current media reporting in sensitive cases.
“I have become increasingly concerned at the nature and weight of media coverage in high-profile and sensitive criminal cases including the coverage of the investigation and early stages of the prosecutions of Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr.”
He wants to draw the media’s attention to potential pitfalls in specific cases by the continued issue of his Guidance to Editors notes and by the issue of general guidance.
Many journalists believe that contempt legislation restricts freedom of speech too severely, he said, adding: “Some see reporting restrictions in court as impeding the judicial principle that justice must not only be done but must be seen to be done.”
But he went on to highlight the way in which media reports can have a direct effect on a criminal case. He argued that if a trial is stopped, it can affect the victims, witnesses, defendants and professionals and may ultimately prevent justice being done.
“There is also a real human cost to witnesses such as victims of sexual or physical abuse, including children, when they are asked to give evidence for a second time,” he warned. He cited the contempt action following the collapse of the trial of the Leeds footballers Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate as an example of “the harm that can be caused to the trial process by premature and inappropriate comment in the press”.
The retrial after The Sunday Mirror was fined £75,000 plus costs for publishing an interview with the father of victim Sarfraz Najeib, increased the traumatic effect on the vicitm, his family, witnesses and the defendants, Lord Goldsmith said.
“The Government is committed to maintaining the freedom of the press. But trial by media has no place in our society,” said Lord Goldsmith.
By Jean Morgan