Goldsmith's contempt confusion

An aide, inset, told journalists not to report Lord Goldsmith’s comments

As the Attorney General urged journalists to be more careful in their reporting of court cases, he appeared to himself breach a court order and commit contempt of court.

Lord Goldsmith was speaking at the Press Gazette/Newspaper Society Law for Journalists conference when he made his gaffe, which was corrected by an aide an hour after he had finished his speech and left. The aide urged journalists not to report the contentious comments and told those who had already filed copy to get it retracted.

The details of his remarks cannot be reported because they refer to a pretrial hearing in a current case which is subject to reporting restrictions.

But Newspaper Society director David Newell said Lord Goldsmith’s comments underlines the problems experienced by journalists trying to abide by current contempt of court rules.

He said: “What the Attorney General said about current trials and how the media should report them well demonstrated to us that the law of contempt and the law relating to court reporting restrictions is a confused area of law and there needs to be a dialogue between the media and the Attorney General.

“Anyone who was there would have gone away feeling this is a difficult area of the law.”

He also questioned how journalists could be expected to comply with contempt of court law when the Attorney General himself evidently had difficulty doing so.

Goldsmith created further controversy by apparently reminding editors of their obligations under lesserknown common law contempt rules, which extend beyond the strict liability rule of the Contempt of Court Act.

This is the section of the 1981 law stating that liability for contempt starts once proceedings are active – ie, a suspect has been arrested, charged or summoned.

Goldsmith said: “Simply because a report will appear before a person has been arrested or charged with the offence does not mean that there can be no risk of prejudice.”

He added that journalists should bear in mind the 1981 Contempt of Court Act “but not treat it as the be all and end all”.

On the subject of contempt of court, Press Complaints Commission chairman Sir Christopher Meyer, who spoke later at the conference, said: “Journalists must stay inside the law as it’s outlined in the 1981 Contempt of Court Act – if the Attorney General wants to extend the reach of the act, let him change the law.”

He added: “If the Attorney has proposals for changing the Code of Practice he should make them – like any other member of the public.

“What everybody in the industry has to avoid is a grey area in which it is unclear to editors what is permissable and what is not permissable under the law.”

Jonathan Caplan QC, said he had “reservations” about the Attorney General’s comments.

He said: “The role of the Attorney General is to hold the balance between a fair trial and free speech and to act in the public interest.

“As far as I am aware, no previous Attorney General has issued detailed notices to the media saying what can and can’t be published on a particular case.

“Since August last year, the Attorney General has issued a number of different sets of guidance on a number of different high-profile cases – some saying in great detail what can and can’t be reported.”

Caplan said: “If the advice is wrong, it could inhibit perfectly legitimate reporting.”

He added: “Is it the role of the Attorney General to express an opinion prior to publication? That’s the responsibility of the publishers and their own legal advisers.”

In his speech, the Attorney General said he was currently investigating 70 court cases which may have been subject to prejudicial reporting, which he said was a “disturbingly high number”. He said he was particularly concerned about the reporting of one investigation and trial which he said had been, at times, “frankly unacceptable”.

But he said: “I would welcome a constructive dialogue with journalists and newspapers as to how we can together best address these and other practical problems.”

 

DOMINIC PONSFORD AND JON SLATTERY REPORT FROM THE PRESS GAZETTE/NEWSPAPER SOCIETY LAW FOR JOURNALISTS CONFERENCE

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