Two national newspapers have each been fined £15,000 for contempt of court over internet photographs which showed a murder trial defendant holding a pistol.
In March, the publishers of the Daily Mail and The Sun became the first website owners in the country to be found guilty of contempt “online” when they were found to have created a “substantial risk” of prejudicing the trial of Ryan Ward.
Both had accidentally published uncropped or insufficiently cropped photos after the start of the September 2009 Sheffield Crown Court trial of Ward, who was later convicted of murdering car mechanic Craig Wass by hitting him with a brick.
Mail Online now requires it staff to have all articles regarding crime and the courts, including photos and captions, checked by a lawyer before publication, and News Group Newspapers now ensures that all staff working on the online edition of The Sun use pictures only as they appeared in the newspaper.
Attorney General Dominic Grieve QC brought proceedings for contempt on the basis that the papers had breached the strict liability rule of the 1981 Contempt of Court Act, which says that publishing an article or picture which could cause a substantial risk of serious prejudice to a trial may be contempt, even though there is no actual “intent” to interfere with the course of justice.
Associated Newspapers and News Group Newspapers argued there was no strict liability breach and the risk of prejudice was “insubstantial”.
But Lord Justice Moses and Mr Justice Owen ruled there had been contempt and that, whilst no juror saw the offending image, the risk was created by an avoidable mistake.
They warned: “The criminal courts have been troubled by the dangers to the integrity and fairness of a criminal trial, where juries can obtain such easy access to the internet and to other forms of instant communication.
“This case demonstrates the need to recognise that instant news requires instant and effective protection for the integrity of a criminal trial.”
Today, they said that £15,000 would be an “appropriate penalty” for each defendant and they should pay the Attorney General’s costs of £28,117.
Lord Justice Moses said that both had apologised for their genuine mistake and taken steps to avoid repetition.